GED programs attract inmates across region

By Christy Goodman
Thursday, July 8, 2010; VA16

Virgil Ventura of the District wants to be an auto mechanic. Melvin Parks of the District wants a business degree. Roman Fuentes of Lorton wants something valuable he can take with him when he returns to the Philippines.

For most graduates, an education offers hope for the future. And for the April graduates of the General Educational Development program at the Alexandria Detention Center, getting an education gives them a chance to focus on the future while serving time for past actions.

Ventura was at the center on a malicious wounding charge. Parks violated his probation. Fuentes was being deported because of a firearms charge.

"Half of my guys are getting released in the next six months," Krista Sofonia, the center's adult education coordinator, said in April. "For them, they kind of have to have this to take the next step."

Interest in the GED diploma program has increased at the center, as has the number of inmates passing the test.

Enrollment in the GED and English as a Second Language programs rose from 58 students in the 2004-05 school year to 259 in 2008-09. As of March, 169 students were enrolled.

In the 2004-05 school year, 53 percent of the inmates who took the GED test passed. By 2008-09, 66 percent had passed. In March, there was a 61 percent pass rate. Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said he tries to emphasize the program to the inmates.

"Our hope is when they return to the community, they can be gainfully employed," he said.

Lawhorne created a GED unit, where students enrolled in the program live together and can tutor one another. The unit "creates a positive learning atmosphere," he said.

The D.C. Department of Corrections launched a GED program in April 2008, in which inmates serve as tutors within housing units. Spokeswoman Sylvia Lane said that 142 inmates completed the program and that 57 percent passed the test.

Tutors and inmates live together in Prince George's County's education unit, as well.

"We find the focus is much better if they are in one unit rather than pulling them from all over the jail," said Mary Lou McDonough, director of the county's Department of Corrections.

The Prince George's program is limited to how many tests the jail can afford and how many people can live in the GED housing unit. Thirty to 36 inmates are in the education unit at one time, McDonough said. Over the past five years, the inmates average a 44 percent pass rate, she said.

At the Alexandria Detention Center graduation ceremony in April, inmates in caps and gowns marched from a tiny law library through the jail's gymnasium, passing family members and other inmates before taking their seats.

Alexandria Police Chief Earl L. Cook spoke of the importance of having a GED diploma and how it puts the graduates on a "safer, more defined road" to success. He also encouraged the graduates to seize the opportunity now. "Time and again, my lesson is try to grab it now. The future is not promised," Cook said.

For Parks, receiving a GED diploma is an accomplishment long overdue. And his mother, Vanessa Parks, agreed. She cheered in the audience as her son's name was called.

"It was my dream come true for my son," Vanessa Parks said.

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