By Wilson Ring
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."
Vermont law requires that any prison inmate under age 22 who has not graduated from high school spend 20 hours a week in school.
"I always refer to them as students," Woods says. "You talk to the caseworkers, they're inmates. When they come through that door, they're students."
There aren't hard statistics, but corrections officials believe that Community High School helps keep people from returning to jail.
"We are having an effect on the youth population we reach in the facilities because they're not coming back in," said Community High School Principal Steve LaTulippe, who went to work for the Corrections Department a year after retiring from his 30-year career as a teacher in South Burlington. He's been principal for almost three years.
The Community High School won accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and is now considered in the same category as some of the nation's most elite private schools, like Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire or the Groton School in Massachusetts.
"Most states tend to abandon incarcerated youth and don't provide much in the way of ongoing education," said Sam Robinson, an official at the New England Commission on Independent Schools. He said of the Community High School staff: "They're committed, well-organized, dedicated people who are serving an underserved population. I think that's great stuff."
Lyndon Institute Headmaster Rick Hilton led a New England Association of Schools & Colleges panel that in October visited sites run by Community High School as part of the accreditation process.
They were impressed by the educators' dedication, he said. Of the students, he added: "It was also impressive how many want to continue [studying when they get out of jail]. These are people who weren't succeeding elsewhere who are succeeding there."
Community High School board member Dwight A. Davis said that whenever he asks inmates if anyone had ever taken an interest in their education, they say no.
"As an educator, that's difficult for me to accept," Davis said. "A lot of our kids, if they had one caring adult, they would succeed. Unfortunately, they don't. If we can correct that, we've corrected a gross error."
The Community High School has about 250 volunteer teachers and 60 paid teachers, Davis said.
Students can study at one facility and, if they're transferred or released, pick up their work where they left off in the new prison or at one of the community offices.
Teachers work hard with the students to make sure they learn, but they aren't coddled.
"They don't want it to be too easy. They'll be insulted," said Claire Swaha, a corrections instructor at the St. Johnsbury probation office, a street outpost of the Community High School.
There's a map of the solar system on the wall along with maps of the United States and the world. Copies of "Ethan Frome" sit on a bookshelf alongside "The Last Buffalo Herder" and "Silent Spring." A number of green graduation gowns hang behind a door.
"It's a really good school," said John Cooper, 29, who moved to Vermont from California last year shortly before he ended up at the St. Johnsbury Regional Correctional Facility -- across a common parking lot from the work camp -- on drug charges. He's due out in February and hopes to become a computer repair technician.
"They take the time to help you learn. They've got a lot of patience. A lot of us are hardheaded and stubborn."
Stevens, the Rutland teenager serving time at the work camp, said that when he gets out he wants to keep learning. He'll be able to study at the local office wherever he ends up living. He'd like to become an auto mechanic.
"I'll be enrolled in the same school," he said. "I need to keep busy so I don't come back."