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While many inmates in state prisons are required to attend educational programs, the notion of continuing their education after their release is often a distant thought.
“It’s partly the overwhelming nature of re-entry, and life as it is often has priorities such as survival and family restoration that can stand in the way,” said Beth Dorado, director of the Gordon Bernell Charter School in Albuquerque.
“But I also think there is a discrepancy in the transition services that give people a place to get ahead, such as the limited number of transition homes they have available and the difficulty of connecting to a provider of Establish behavior therapy, ”she said.
A transition option is Gordon Bernell, an Albuquerque Public Schools charter school with three locations. The Metropolitan Detention Center campus and a second campus on North Fourth Street offer a high school program and an adult education program, while a third campus at the Albuquerque Job Corps offers the high school program only.
Metropolitan Detention Center inmates enrolled in Gordon Bernell Charter School wear graduation gowns during a pre-COVID-19 disease ceremony that saw them earn their high school certifications. (Courtesy Gordon Bernell Charter School)
The high school program for men and women ages 18-21 is funded by the state Department of Education and enables students to meet the requirements of a regular high school in New Mexico.
“So they earn credits and take exams and the hope is they get a high school diploma,” Dorado said.
Beth Dorado, director of the Gordon Bernell Charter School, who works primarily with students currently or recently incarcerated. (Courtesy Beth Dorado)
The adult education program for people aged 22 and over is funded by the State Department of Higher Education and supports a variety of initiatives, including “helping students gain their GED or HiSET certifications or pursuing a career to prepare them for the job”. “Said Dorado.
“We have always focused on working with students who are currently or recently incarcerated, and our population has always turned to older students,” she said.
Gordon Bernell is unique in that it is the only educational institution in the state that deals almost exclusively with law enforcement officials outside of the Department of Corrections’ own educational component.
However, Amber Gallup Rodriguez, director of adult education at HED, said that out of 26 HED-funded adult education programs across the state, seven are using some of their money to help some institutionalized individuals.
The school program within the MDC does not require participation, as is the case with many state prisons.
“Our students volunteer and we have a process to help them transition to our school on Fourth Street,” said Dorado.
About 80% of Gordon Bernell students on Fourth Street campus are from the MDC. The remaining 20% come from the surrounding community because they prefer the “flexible model” of school, said Dorado.
There are also a growing number of students who took classes while at the MDC and were later transferred to a government department of the Department of Justice. “After their release, some of them will come back to us.”
Dorado said she wants to develop relationships with the Department of Corrections and the Department’s Parole and Probation Division so that inmates leaving a prison can be referred to Gordon Bernell, where they can continue their education and have access to career preparation.
Established in 2008, the Gordon Bernell Charter School began with one campus in prison and another in downtown Albuquerque. The program grew rapidly and expanded to nine locations, including the Sandoval County Jail and convalescent facilities for men and women operated by state probation and probation services, Dorado said.
In 2018, state lawmakers reformulated the eligibility definition for public education funding, cutting off students after the age of 21, Dorado said. “That was the largest part of our population. Our average student was 35 years old, so about two-thirds of our students were no longer qualified to fit into this diplomatic category because they were too old. “
Eventually, the Gordon Bernell School was able to obtain funding for older students through the state Department of Education and local grants. Now, adult education program participants can seek certifications through the GED (General Educational Development) or HiSET (High School Equivalency Test), Dorado said.
The school currently serves 1,000 to 1,500 students year-round, around 300 at any given time. About 200 are in the program, which is funded by the PED with $ 2.2 million; Approximately 100 students are enrolled in the program, which is funded with $ 254,000 from HED, with an additional $ 100,000 in local grants.
“I wouldn’t say our HED budget meets the need, but it definitely provides what we need to get the program started and we are grateful for that and the relationship that continues to build,” said Dorado. “As we strengthen the program and show results, HED has assured us that the program can and will grow.”
“Measurable competence gains”
Students’ success in the high school program can be measured by reading and writing skills and basic math skills, as well as graduation scores, Dorado said.
The school’s three locations combined have an average of about 60 graduates a year with either a diploma or a high school certificate of equivalency, she said.
In the adult program, “we’re also looking for measurable gains in skills, but we’re also looking for gains in professional and life skills that are a little more difficult to measure but are just as important,” she said.
Looking at thousands of Gordon Bernell test results from high school students as of 2015, Dorado said that the average student in school around the 6th grade of inmates cannot read beyond a fourth grade.
This may be because most Gordon Bernell students at or from the Metropolitan Detention Center are more motivated and volunteer in educational programs.
“People with the lowest literacy levels are often the most hesitant,” said Dorado.
In addition, students who were regularly enrolled in the school for at least four months improved by at least one grade in literacy.
“The most overwhelming part of what I hear from our students regret is that they didn’t graduate,” she said. “They realize that they will not change their lives and get the jobs they are interested in until they complete an apprenticeship. That is one of the reasons this population is so delightful to work with because they are genuinely interested in doing it differently this time around.
“You are fed up with being sick and tired.”
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