TDCJ's Windham School District gives inmates a shot at academic success

 Offenders and their families feel a sense of accomplishment on graduation day

 

Ellis

Inmates of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Estelle, Ellis and Eastham units were all
smiles as they received their GED diplomas from guest speaker Barbara Cargill last
Saturday morning at the Windham School District graduation ceremony.  -Joshua Yates

 

By Cody Stark
THE HUNTSVILLE ITEM 
News Editor
March 8, 2014

 

 

HUNTSVILLE-When inmates enter the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system, they often have a history of academic failure, low self-esteem and function at a sixth-grade learning level.

Windham School District offers offenders the opportunity to turn things around and develop skills to help them once they are released from prison.

Last weekend, a graduation ceremony was held for 26 inmates who earned their General Educational Development, or GED, diplomas while serving their sentences in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Estelle, Ellis and Eastham units in Walker County. 

Barbara Cargill, chair of the State Board of Education, was the guest speaker at the Estelle Unit last weekend. The offenders' families were invited to the graduation ceremony.

GED prepare 1

The TDCJ inmate choir roused the crowd with songs of joy last Saturday
morning as many inmates prepared to receive their GED diplomas after
months of studying in the Windham School District.  -Joshua Yates

"We have a lot of very proud parents and grandparents that attend the graduation because for a lot of these fellows, this is the first time they have ever accomplished anything," said Frieda Spiller, who has been the Windham principal at the Estelle Unit since September.

"With them being in prison, there is a negative light cast on them and this is something positive that not only can they brag about, but their families can as well."

When inmates enter TDCJ they are tested to determine their academic level. They are placed in Windham programs based on an Individualized Treatment Plan, which outlines educational services for the offender, based on age, program availability, projected release date and need for academic, vocational and life skills programs.

"We have a lot of offenders who come into the system who are almost illiterate-emergent readers-and we put them through a series of literacy classes," Spiller said. "Our literacy classes are leveled out based on their academic abilities and they work their way through those classes until they obtain their GED."

Inmates are taught reading, math, science, social studies and language, which includes writing, to prepare for the GED test. They go to class for three hours and 15 minutes a day and follow a curriculum.

"The teachers get reports on weaknesses and strengths on each offender in their class," said Gary Clark, who has worked for Windham for 25 years and has been the principal at the Ellis and Estelle units for close to two years. "It is like a regular classroom where the teacher can break the offenders into groups to focus on the areas they struggle with."

Windham currently provides educational services at 88 prison facilities across the state. Aside from the literacy programs, inmates also have to opportunity to take classes in 34 vocational trade areas.

"They have to qualify to take vocational classes and usually their reading level has to be around fifth and seventh grade," Clark said. "Seventh grade is what we recommend but a principal can make a decision on a certain unit that a guy has been working hard, has a fifth-grade reading level but can be put in a bricklaying class or another class.

"A student who does not have a GED can take a vocational class, but they have to be concurrently enrolled in academics. We are going to get you the GED and the vocational skills to help you in the free world."

Clark said that sometimes there are offenders who are reluctant to go to class when they first get to prison. As they begin to climb through the academic levels and improve their education, things begin to change.

"They suddenly realize that their reading is getting better and they can write letters home," Clark said. "They begin to love math because they see it as a game. When at first they didn't want to come to class and didn't want to speak, they start showing up and talking more."

For a lot of the inmates, Windham allows them to achieve academic success for the first time in their lives. But the educators who help them reach those goals also take pride in their accomplishments.

"What we do is very rewarding because not only do you see the students grow academically, but you see a growth in their social behavior and how they communicate with other people," Spiller said.

"You know you did something that is going to positively affect their lives. You have equipped them with skills that will help them go out and get employment that will help them provide for their families, so the impact doesn't stop with the student."

 

Reprinted with permission of The Huntsville ITEM

 

Other articles that may interest you:

Sen. Charles Perry speaks to graduates in Childress - Graduation speaker Sen. Charles Perry recently inspired WSD students and their visiting families at a Roach Unit commencement ceremony in Childress. He addressed graduates who had completed their High School Equivalency certificates (HSEC) and presented each one with a leather bound copy of the book "Jesus Calling".

WSD & TDCJ: Gatesville tour for Governor's staff focuses on partnerships, successful re-entry efforts - Board of Trustees Chairman Dale Wainwright and Windham School District staff hosted eight members of Governor Greg Abbott's staff for a tour of the Woodman State Jail and maximum security Hughes Unit. They were joined by Chairman of the Board of Pardons and Parole David Gutierrez and other leadership from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Special strategic planning committee meets for life skills review - Updates and effective revisions to WSD life skills programs were the focus of a two-day strategic planning meeting held Jan. 21-22 in Huntsville. WSD teachers, academic specialists, regional administrators and principals; former Board of Trustee members, current TDCJ partners, university researchers, and community stakeholders came together as a special committee to offer input on WSD life skills curriculum revisions.

WSD WANTS YOU To help recruit great teachers & earn extra time for yourself! - Correctional educators with Windham School District have some of the best teaching jobs in the state, and your help is needed to get this word out!  WSD is currently recruiting academic and vocational teachers for its schools statewide, and employees are encouraged to help bring in the best referrals and candidates for Windham teaching jobs.

Teachers: WSD WANTS YOU To join its new Summer School program! - Windham School District is expanding educational opportunities for TDCJ offenders during Summer Break 2016, and teaching positions are currently available. New summer school classes will focus on additional certifications, jobs, parenting, and life skills -- all designed to assist WSD students in obtaining and maintaining employment.

Success Stories

Success Story IconNEW - After more than 16 years - "I graduated from the electrical program in 1998. I found my Windham teachers were real people, and they..."

Success Story IconNEW - I can now make a living. I’m free - "The welding program helped me build character. Mr. Perry taught me how to talk like a welder..."

Success Story Icon NEW - I learned to change my perspective - "It’s the education I learned in Cognitive Intervention class that changed me. I learned to change my perspective."

Success Story IconEducation changed my life -
"These opportunities [GED® classes or learning a trade] are great, but WSD is so much more than that; for me it was a change of life."

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WSD in Images

Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
Vocational and academic skills are integrated in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as this Small Engine Repair class in Huntsville, Texas.
Texas State Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill congratulates GED recipients during Spring, 2014, ceremonies. “I am very impressed with the program and with the commitment of the staff and teachers,” she said.
Female offenders in Gatesville, Texas, study to improve their literacy skills during a WSD academic class.
Each day WSD correctional educators pass through prison gates across Texas to work with men and women incarcerated within TDCJ.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.

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