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:

WSD receives support from NCCER with efforts to connect trained offenders and employers - Windham School District vocational training programs are certified by the nationally-recognized National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Industrial Certification Verification program. This program is widely recognized in industry as a leading certification endorsement for the construction and manufacturing trades. 

New Reading Horizons curriculum to help develop fluency, comprehension - Literacy teachers from Windham School District are training in a new reading curriculum, Reading Horizons, to assist students develop reading fluency and comprehension. "This program was chosen by WSD after being peer reviewed by the UT Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk," said Amy Lopez, WSD Division of Instruction director.

C-Tech connects Windham students with high tech skills, Increases offenders’ opportunities for freeworld jobs - Using interactive instruction, carefully monitored wire cutters, a hand-held testing device and a classroom partner's input, an offender in a Texas prison school cuts and creates his own wire/cable connection and plugs it into a telecommunications simulator. His teacher follows up with a tester, making sure the connection is successful and complete.

Windham School District honors professional counselors - Message from WSD Superintendent Dr. Clint Carpenter: Each year in February we proudly honor The Windham School District’s professional counseling staff, an integral part of correctional education success! All public school counselors provide guidance to students while working with teachers and administrators, but Windham counselors perform their jobs within the challenging environment of the Texas prison system. By promoting the best interests of students, our counselors help transform lives and reduce recidivism.

Mason Staggs: Education during incarceration leads to long-term employment, life success - Former offender Staggs’ success story frequently inspires incarcerated graduates in Windham School District (WSD). Staggs himself was incarcerated for close to 10 years within TDCJ, serving time on the Ferguson, Hughes and Middleton units. He has now been on the outside for 18 years.

Success Stories

Success Story IconNEW - They didn’t give up - "It makes me feel really good to know that these guys aren’t giving up just because they’re in prison."

Success Story IconNEW - Education taught me... - "Education taught me how to think and analyze problems, which helps me daily in my current employment."

Success Story IconPolunsky Unit Success Story -
"He [Mr. Leblanc] taught me things that even the guys rebuilding transmissions for many years didn't know."

Success Story IconRole Model - Success Story -
"I talk to them about how important education is and how hard I'm trying to prove that to them."

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WSD in Images

WSD’s Business and Image Management & Multimedia (BIMM) class offers students the opportunity to learn viable graphic arts and computer skills, helping them prepare for jobs after release.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.
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.
Vocational and academic skills are integrated in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as this Small Engine Repair class in Huntsville, Texas.
Female offenders in Gatesville, Texas, study to improve their literacy skills during a WSD academic class.