Charter school in women’s prison gives new hope

It was a towering moment in the lives of the 19 teary-eyed young women.

Emissaries from high offices, including Gov. Nathan Deal’s, watched as a school superintendent turned each of their tassels to the other side of their heads. Afterward, they flung their mortarboards skyward, though they couldn’t throw too hard because the ceiling was so low.

Under their green robes they wore tan clothes, with “DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS” in black on their shirt backs. Outside, prison guards in gray ambled past fences topped with concertina wire.

These inmates at Arrendale State Prison near Gainesville are the first to earn high school diplomas while incarcerated in a Georgia prison.

Until now, the state offered only courses leading to a General Educational Development credential, or GED, which is generally less respected by employers and, especially, colleges.

“It’s much easier with a diploma to get in,” said Tony Lowden, who works for Deal on a program aimed at shutting the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” in Georgia.

“We can do a better job of educating our returning citizens,” said Lowden, who also serves on the State Charter Schools Commission.

The Arrendale students were enrolled in January in a pilot program operated by Mountain Education Charter High School, which got its charter from the commission. The school started in 1993 as a cooperative between several North Georgia school districts that needed a place for students with disciplinary issues. Over the years, its mission — and footprint — grew to include more school districts and “non-traditional” students, including young mothers, working teens, older students and others who eschewed the typical school schedule.

The new program, which mixes online learning with one-on-one teaching, is the latest demonstration of the way charter schools are filling a niche not served by traditional schools.

L.C. “Buster” Evans, a Corrections official, said the success of the women’s program has encouraged the agency to create a similar program for men. In August, a diploma program will start at the Burruss Correctional Training Center, a prison in Monroe County.

“I felt like we had to try it,” said Evans, who said there are more than 25,000 male inmates in Georgia, about half of whom never finished high school. Of the state’s 2,900 female inmates, 1,200 don’t have GEDs or diplomas, though that number dropped by 19 after the Arrendale graduation ceremony Thursday.

The hope of self-improvement and the promise of a better life drove Jasmiyah Whitehead to earn her diploma. The 21-year-old was sentenced to 20 years for manslaughter.

Her teachers at Arrendale said she’s intelligent and inspired. She gave the valedictorian speech, and said afterward: “I just did my best … I want to go to college.”

She wants to take online courses in child psychology because, she said, she had a difficult childhood and hopes to help others avoid her mistakes. “If I could help kids not go through what I went through,” she said, “that would be awesome.”

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