On The Inside

Jail-Based Charter School Is The First Of Its Kind In The United States

Marisa Demarco
7 min read
On the Inside
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The first time Jennifer Pate walked into her new workplace, coworkers asked her if she was OK. "I must have been pale as a ghost and just doe-eyed," she says. "Here I was all tough, thinking, I can do this, no big deal. This will be a great job. Soon as that big door goes kachoom behind you, it was like, Oh my god. I’m on the inside now."

Pate is one of 15 teachers training since July 1 to work in the
Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center. She won’t be helping inmates study for their GEDs. Instead, she’ll be an instructor for Gordon Bernell, an APS charter high school and the the first of its kind in the country. School is in session full-time Aug. 4.

Named for
a man who worked to promote literacy and education in the jail (and who wore a Santa suit during Christmas family days there), the school aims to graduate some of the estimated 40 percent of inmates without diplomas. "Prisons and jails have adult basic education programs, and they have GED preparation programs, and they do parenting and substance abuse—different kinds of classes like that," says Greta Roskom, the school’s director. "But we’re a comprehensive high school, and this is a really unique thing that we’re doing."

"It Makes Business Sense"

It’s a full-fledged school with the same requirements of any other in Albuquerque. The idea came from Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, also an
Alibi columnist, about a year ago, says Steve Gallegos, president of the charter school’s board. Inmate transition will be aided by two campuses: one in the jail, and one Downtown in the old Metro courthouse for students to attend once they’ve done their time.

BCMDC is a jail, housing inmates awaiting trial or those serving sentences shorter than a year. Educational programs often exist in prisons—where the population is more long-term. But Gallegos says jails are becoming more like prisons all the time as mandatory sentences increase. "We have people sentenced there for 364 days," he says. "We have some people that end up awaiting trial there for longer than that."

Jails, says Gallegos, drain money from counties across the country, and without funds, commissioners can’t build parks or create after-school programs, "those kinds of things that keep people from getting into trouble in the first place.” Any effort to decrease jail population helps free up funds for preventive measures. "If people don’t understand why to do this on a social basis, they can understand it on an economic basis," he adds. "It makes business sense to decrease population and get people to do the right thing."

The correlation between a lack of education and crime is strong, Gallegos says. “Did you know that in some states they actually look at the literacy rate in the third grade to determine what size their prisons are going to be?” he asks.

Operational funds are coming from the New Mexico Public Education Department, as they do for any other school. The budget was drawn up based on the projected number of students. Gordon Bernell hopes to have 250 by the end of the year, drawing down $1.9 million. An additional half million came from a federal startup grant, allowing the school to purchase furniture and computers and develop curriculum. The majority of the students will be male, as the female jail population is smaller.

"They Have to Make the Commitment"

Each class will have 20 students. School will start at 8 a.m. in the detention center and end at 2:30 p.m. Classes on the Downtown campus will go all day until 6:30 p.m., and students will be allowed to pick and choose their schedule according to work and family needs.

"We’re expecting them to be highly motivated, and we expect them to have perfect attendance," says Roskom. "We expect our students to be respectful." With more people wishing to attend the school than there are seats, behavioral problems will be met with zero tolerance and immediate expulsion. Gallegos expects most inmates to be grateful for the opportunity to leave their cells and attend classes.

The challenge, says Jesse Lucero, who will teach social studies and special education, will be to keep people motivated. "They have to make the commitment once they’re released to come back and go to school when they’re outside."

Kerry Singleton will be Bernell’s principal at the detention center and has worked in corrections for 20 years. He was the education director for the state penitentiary for 10 years. "In my view, the reality is 99 percent of these guys is going to be back on the street sometime," he says. "We can take advantage of the time that they’re up there to give them some skills—academic skills, social skills, cognitive skills—and help them improve their lives and thus improve the community and children’s lives."

It’s the success stories that keep him going, he says. "You see guys month to month, their thinking processes change, they’re more open to a different type of lifestyle than the one they got bogged down in. Not all people, but enough of them to make it worthwhile to be there."

"The More You Walk in There … "

Initially, Singleton felt hesitant about the fact that all the teachers dedicating themselves to the charter school had no previous experience working in corrections. It’s tricky, he says. Correctional facilities have their own cultures, not only in terms of inmates, but staff, too. "And you need to know those pitfalls and things before you go in so you’re not thrown to the wolves." But after seeing the training of the staff by the facility, those reservations have dissipated.

Lucero describes that training as a condensed version of what a corrections officer goes through: first aid, self-defense, CPR, how to recognize con games, how to say no, how to establish firm boundaries.

The teachers have also developed a unique curriculum that will work for inmates with little or no reading and writing skills, to those who’ve spent hours studying the law while in jail every day. It will be "mastery" based, which means students will be able to progress no matter their skill level. Students will also be undergoing “moral reconation therapy,” which means learning how to rethink decisions and choices they’ve made in their lives, says Roskom.

Pate’s no longer afraid when she hears that door close anymore, she says. "The more you walk in there, the more comfortable you feel, the more you know that you’re doing something good," she says. Tom Rabatin, who will teach math, says he was apprehensive, even wondering if teaching in this school was a good idea. "But then we had an opportunity to go into one of the pods. The students sat down, and we were able to address them. To see 180 eyes just staring with this hope, with this desire—it was overwhelming."

Carlos Contreras, a local slam poet, will work as an educational assistant and resident poet at the charter school. "You can get hurt doing just about any job," he says. "But with this job, the amount of reward that comes out of it and the amount of change that you can affect doesn’t come with every job."
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