‘The way she treats us makes us want to do well’

By Rahsaan Thomas

There’s a teacher who walks around a prison classroom engaging students and encouraging them in a way they say most teachers in the public school system din’t.

Behind San Quentin educator D. Searle is a testament — copies of more than two dozen High School Equivalent diplomas earned since late 2015 by her students line the walls of her classroom.

“As convicts, we know how it feels to believe no one cares. It makes us not want to care about ourselves,” said Cayo Carini, who is Searle’s assistant. “I think the way she walks around and interacts with each student makes them want to do well, to make her proud, as well as achieve their personal goals. The achievement of the students speaks for itself.”

Searle has master degrees in education and educational therapy. She has taught for 30 years, including 20 years in public schools and college. She incorporates using a Smart Board, computers, independent studies, small group studies and one-on-one sessions to accommodate every student’s learning style.

“I see that the best use of my skill has been here,” said Searle, who started teaching at San Quentin 10 years ago. “I want to see these guys succeed where people may have given up on this population.”

Searle admits that the success of the students is a collaborative effort between fellow teachers Phil Leonida and Anita Sufi. Leonida and Sufi prepare the students by teaching them ABE and Pre-GED grade-level reading, writing and arithmetic.

The students say they have equal access to all the teachers. If a student needs extra help on a particular subject, the student can easily work with a teacher who specializes in it. The teachers say that working together is rewarding.

“We all have the same goal. We want to see the students succeed,” Searle said. “It’s never been this way before. It feels like I’m not alone anymore.”

George “Mesro” Coles-El, another one of Searle’s assistants, added that her collaboration with other teachers “makes all the difference in the world.”

Each student is required to meet the new Common Core and College & Career Ready standards for High School Equivalency that started in 2015.

“I was one of the first students that took the new style of GED,” said Marquez Sherouse, who earned his GED at age 39. “That (standardized) system started last year, and the first couple of times I took it, I didn’t pass. I was getting frustrated. My teachers had high expectations; they thought I would nail it. They saw the frustration, discouragement. “They told me to calm down. I’m glad I did have them; I would have felt like I failed myself, my mom and my wife had I given up.”

Each student is now required to be computer literate, type at least 20 words per minute and use critical thinking.

Former student Conrai Jackson, 48, achieved his GED in October.

“I had a learning disability called stupidity and didn’t have teachers patient enough to work with me,” Jackson said. “Out of all the teachers I had in my life, the three most caring teachers are Sufi, Leonida and Mrs. Searle.”

Leonida brings his experience to bear.

“I was a special ed kid, so I had a lot of the same issues, both in understanding the material and fighting the teacher,” Leonida said. “I remember and recognize the snags.”

Student Anthony Prater said, “I dropped out of school in 12th grade. I couldn’t focus. Now they call it dyslexia. I credit Sufi and Leonida and Mrs. Searle with how they teach. I was in special education. Leonida related to a lot of things I was lacking, and he was able to teach me a lot of things that I didn’t understand.”

Sufi, a 28-year teaching veteran, considers the work reversing the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Instead of everybody teaching all over the place, I focus on remedial math and getting reading up. I feed the pipeline for success,” Sufi said. “I find it meaningful work. I think my students are the reason that I come to work every day. It gives me hope when I see them study, their self-determination. This is the best year in working in education.”

Searle and Leonida also collaborate with the Office of Correctional Education in Sacramento.

“Sufi passed the baton to Leonida and I to be on the Academic Education Leadership Committee (AELC). Only eight CDCR teachers are on this committee. We have input regarding curriculum, professional development, instructional goals, and classroom strategies. We have a voice in what’s going on in CDCR education.”

“We know education is proven to reduce recidivism,” Searle said. “I’m very excited, I see great things happening.”

For her graduates, great things already are happening. “It a wonderful feeling to give that diploma to my mama and show her that I wasn’t just a mess-up,” Marquez Sherouse said.

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