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Inaugural class of incarcerated high school students graduate

The inaugural class of Windham School District's (WSD) Matthew Gaines High School graduated on Friday, April 1, 2022 with their high school diplomas (HSD). WSD, which is dedicated to providing educational opportunities to students in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), established the high school in October 2020, in addition to the various courses that have been available for many years, to address the educational needs of young learners and improve their quality of life.

"This is a momentous occasion for both our students and the district," WSD Superintendent Kristina Hartman said. "For many students, this is the first time in their life that they have celebrated an educational achievement. I am proud of our graduates for achieving this goal, as well as our educators and staff for helping them reach this milestone."

To meet educational requirements set forth by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the district employed innovative techniques. At the Matthew Gaines High School, courses are tailored to each student through classroom teachers and by utilizing computer-based instruction provided by the University of Texas to support students with individualized instruction to meet their educational needs. Additionally, the program includes Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses such as electrical, construction, welding and culinary. The high school also offers opportunities to participate in dual credit courses with Lee College, as well as special education and Title I services for eligible students. Through this model, graduates receive both their HSD and an industry-recognized credential in a high demand occupational field that will allow these students to contribute to the Texas Workforce upon rejoining their communities.

"We are thrilled that these graduates will have the skills necessary to be successful in their careers and personal lives," Hartman said.

Initial enrollment of the Matthew Gaines High School, located at the Ferguson Campus in Midway, TX, began with 22 students who were age 26 and under. Eligible students were evaluated based on the number of credits needed to graduate with an HSD, amount of time remaining on sentence, age, custody level, and interest. Approximately 65 other students at the Ferguson campus graduated with their high school equivalency certificates, CTE certificates or industry-recognized credentials.

In the last session, the Texas Legislature passed and provided funding for House Bill 30 (HB30), which requires WSD to offer a high school diploma program to eligible students. In addition to the Matthew Gaines High School, WSD also offers a high school program for women at the Woodman Campus in Gatesville, TX. Representative James Talarico, who authored the bill, spoke to graduates, their families, and WSD educators and staff at the ceremony as the keynote speaker.

"I want to congratulate you on this enormous accomplishment," Talarico said. "I want to thank your families, who made this day possible. And I want to thank the professionals and teachers..."

"Love can make a flower grow out of concrete. Love can transform pain before it is transferred. Love can turn an inmate into a graduate," Talarico added.

High school programs provided by the district offer incarcerated students the opportunity to achieve a dream, one they previously perceived to be unattainable. With their HSD, HSE or industry certification, these graduates will have the education and tools needed to succeed upon returning to their communities.