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Prisons: Do They Hold the Answer to Public Education?

By       Message Janice Chamberlin     Permalink
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It seems counterintuitive, but the answer to education in the United States could be right under our noses -- in prisons!   Media interviews on the subject of improving education spotlight Jenna Bush, business folks, presidential hopeful Governor Mitch Daniels, self-proclaimed experts, or other "saviors" of education such as Michelle Rhee.   But when does anyone ask the opinion of the actual teachers who are in the trenches every single day?  

Better yet, why not ask prison teachers what they think?   They tape together the students who totally fell through the cracks.   They've dealt with security and discipline issues, every special need imaginable, and little or no materials.   They've managed to teach non-readers to read. The lost and discouraged have been coached to pass the GED test.   And the depressed have been motivated to design landscapes, to conquer computers, to rebuild automobiles, or even to earn college degrees.   Regardless of what anyone thinks of the value of educating criminals, prison teachers are an untapped resource in the quest to improve education for all our children.

In 2010, all the prison educators in my state of Indiana were told our services were no longer needed.   We became victims of the economy and the current trend of "restructuring", better known as privatization.    I'm obviously not pleased, but "it is what it is".   The new company eventually hired half of us back; we were asked to teach ten more students each day, work five more hours a week, and all for the bargain price of fifty percent of our prior pay.   And we're all supposed to be grateful for a job in this economy!

I wish to pay tribute to prison teachers everywhere, especially my long time colleagues. I recently published a book, "Locked Up With Success: A Prison Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap in Any Classroom".   This relays stories of my male inmate students in the largest prison in Indiana. My experiences as a "mama bear" to 50 students a day, with no guard in the immediate area, are not unique.   Prison teachers are a dedicated and talented bunch.   Their experience, energy, and expertise in closing achievement gaps are truly an untapped resource!

Am I saying we should treat young students as if they were criminals?  Heck, no!   But if our methods work with hardened men and women who have never known success, who hated school, who inevitably possess at least one special learning need, wouldn't it seem logical to try these tactics earlier?   Wouldn't it make sense to employ these methods before the student ends up in prison?   We obviously can't save all children from future trouble, but what if we could assist in lowering the prison population and improve education at the same time?  

In recent years, I have been doing a bit of work in the public schools, working on an administrative internship, doing some tutoring and assisting with after school programs. When I observed the little kids again after many years teaching in prison, on went the light bulb! I saw many of the same behaviors and lack of skills that I have seen in my adult students. These would include traits like poor decision-making skills, the inability to listen, a lack of social skills, a need for immediate gratification, and anger issues.

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That's when I realized we prison teachers have valuable information for any teacher. This most challenging teaching position may hold some keys to successfully improving education, overall.

Here are some facts about people in prison.   Well over half have no high school diploma or GED. The average uneducated inmate in my prison classroom is under a traditional fifth grade level.   They range in age from 17 to mid-seventies.   Their abilities range from Kindergarten to Grade 12.   And it is rare to find an inmate that doesn't have at least one special need.   Addictions, depression, mental illness, personality disorders, learning disabilities, ADHD, brain injuries, post traumatic stress, and physical disabilities are rampant.

My plea is that society will realize the value of correctional education before it is totally slashed and burned.   At the same time, I hope visionary educational leaders will consider correctional teachers when strategizing as to how to add value to their school communities.   Most of these teachers would serve well in any number of capacities; administrator, teacher, mentor, or consultant.

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Janice Chamberlin is a speaker and the author of "Locked Up With Success: A Prison Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap in Any Classroom." She has been an educator in public and private schools, a case manager for Child Welfare, and a (more...)

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Prisons: Do They Hold the Answer to Public Education?