In Vermont, Prisoners Go To High School Behind Bars

By Wilson Ring
Associated Press
Sunday, February 18, 2007

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. -- Most days when Nathan Stevens returns to the Caledonia Community Work Camp after laboring to make amends for a burglary conviction, the 17-year-old puts jail life aside and picks up his books.

He spends time studying decimals, biology or other topics one-on-one with Corrections Department educator Tom Woods; these are topics he didn't pay any attention to during his years in a traditional high school.

"It's helpful. I'm not a guy who can sit in a class and just listen," Stevens said. "Here I can get that help and learn something."

Welcome to one of 17 outposts of the Community High School of Vermont.

It's the state's largest high school, and it's run by the Department of Corrections. The school -- operating in each of the state's jails and prisons, with walk-in schools at Probation and Parole offices -- has about 3,500 registered students, though only about 350 attend classes every day.

Stevens didn't get far at Mill River Union High School in Clarendon, just outside his home town of Rutland. "I hated biology before I came to jail," he said. "I'm starting to like biology a lot."

At Community High School, there are no grades or set schedules, and students get plenty of individual attention from understanding teachers. One thing they don't get is a break on what they must accomplish to graduate. Students must earn the same number of credits as any Vermont high school student.

Although the Community High School doesn't have a prom or interscholastic sports, it does offer traditional high school diplomas. And graduation ceremonies, first held in 1998, are as solemn and heartfelt as at any traditional high school, with free-flowing tears of joy from proud parents.

At a commencement ceremony for three female graduates last month at the school's branch in Windsor, "Pomp and Circumstance" played even as staff radios squawked in the background about head counts, and the grads spoke of their hopes.

"Even though I'm not glad to be incarcerated, I'm glad I got the chance to get my high school diploma because I know if I had been on the outside I never would have done it," said Ashleigh Allard, 20, after graduating. When she finishes her 18-to-36-month sentence for domestic assault and other violations, she'd like to become a cosmetologist.

Another graduate, Patience Johnson, spoke matter-of-factly about her efforts as a single mother in high school. She was still enrolled when she moved into a homeless shelter, but that facility was across a town line, meaning she would have had to pay tuition to continue. She dropped out. Now she hopes one day to go to Bible college.

"You've had some missteps along the way," Southeast State Correctional Institution Superintendent Anita Carbonell told the graduates, "but that doesn't mean you can't get back on track."

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