Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Grossmont College classes unlock minds at Las Colinas jail

San Diego County Sheriff's Department photo  
The inmate journals tell the story best about renewed hope and aspirations that a new program offering Grossmont College classes at Las Colinas jail have brought to the women, the first ever to enroll in college at the facility.

Haydee described the epiphany of lessons learned in a counseling course on College and Career Success, one of three classes offered to inmates at the Las Colinas Detention and Re-entry Facility in Santee. Pathways to Success Academy is a joint pilot program of the college and the jail that provides nine college credits, tutoring and financial aid information to inmates who succeed in the five-month regimen of instruction, homework and tests.

“My (lack of) self-esteem was a crucial part in my life that didn’t let me see anything other than feeling sorry for myself,” wrote Haydee, one of 21 inmates who signed up for the classes. 

In addition to a counseling class that offers instruction in study skills, time management, and note-taking, the students also take a communication class to learn public speaking and communication skills, and a college reading class to improve their vocabulary, comprehension and reading speed.

“I have learned many positive strategies…the main one is, I am responsible for my own choices,” Haydee wrote. “Goals and dreams will be accomplished making the right choices. I am no longer a victim.”

A classroom building at the Las Colinas jail.
The Pathways to Success Academy is Las Colinas’ first foray into higher education, although several adult education courses are offered, including ones to earn a high school equivalency certificate and others training inmates for careers in areas such as culinary arts, landscaping and commercial sewing. Those courses are provided by East Region Adult Education, a partnership between the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and the Grossmont Union High School District.

The academy, which concludes in June for the semester, reflects a new philosophy at the 1,200-inmate jail, revamped in 2014. With the improved facilities came a greater emphasis on re-entry services that included academic and pre-employment classes.

“Inmates leave better prepared for reintegration to the community, lowering the chance of reoffending,” said Christine Brown-Taylor, the Re-entry Services manager for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders than inmates who didn’t.

The program is funded by the sheriff’s department, which provides the books, supplies and laptops used by the instructors. Grossmont College provided three instructors: Linda Thomas, who taught college reading and provided tutoring; Denise Schulmeyer, who taught interpersonal communication; and Pearl Lopez, who led the counseling course. The students were screened to ensure they are low-risk inmates who had finished high school and to verify their sentences were long enough to complete the classes. 

Nearly all the students are on track to pass the program, with Thomas’ class increasing their reading ability by an average of two grades. Once they complete the last of the courses, the students will receive certificates of participation.

“Our collaborative Pathways to Success Academy is an extension of our mission of changing lives through education,” said Katrina VanderWoude, vice president of Academic Affairs at Grossmont College. “This has been our first semester at Las Colinas and our faculty and staff have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with these students who are so very eager to learn.”

Thomas couldn’t agree more, saying that despite challenges like the range of reading skills of her students and the limitations of working in a jail, she would return to teach another class “in a heartbeat.”

 “At Las Colinas, I now have a roomful of women who understand that the success they have in their lives once they leave the jail depends on them continuing their education,” she said.

Thomas recounted that after she dismissed the class on the first day, several students lingered and were thumbing through a large dictionary at her desk. “I told them again that they were free to go, but one of the women responded, ‘yes, teacher, but we want to learn,’” she said.

On the last day of Thomas’ class, which ended earlier than the others, the students presented her with a homemade card. “It means the world to me to be able to go to college, and I will see you at Grossmont,” one wrote.
Grossmont College instructor Denise Schulmeyer.

Looking inward
Lopez said her 13 years at Grossmont College counseling and teaching at-risk students in programs geared to helping the economically and educationally disadvantaged prepared her well for her new crop of students. Lopez said the class requires inmates to reflect on their lives and the decisions they have made.

One inmate, Krissy, wrote about her 37 years dealing with the scars of physical and sexual abuse. She was filled with hate and living a life of drugs and crime. By the time she started her current stint at Las Colinas, she was worn down and overcome by the grim realities of her future.

“It was my last chance to start over in my life,” she said. “All the encouragement and love my teachers showed have helped my hardened heart soften and grow. I am no longer fighting a losing war… I’m going to use my past to help someone else -- abused children in need of guidance, love and help.”

Lopez said the growing self-esteem and confidence of students are matched only by their enthusiasm. 

 “They are extremely motivated and eager to take more classes,” Lopez said. “They did not believe me that they were officially enrolled as Grossmont College students, so during the second week of the semester, I brought them all a copy of their transcript. They were blown away.” 

Asked about plans to continue college, one student was emphatic.

“Yes, very much so -- the biggest benefit for me is learning and doing something positive for myself,” said the inmate, convicted for transporting and selling drugs. “I never thought I was college material. I was surprised to find out I am getting an A in my classes. I didn’t know how much I love to learn.”

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