Families gathered to celebrate their loved ones’ accomplishments at the Robert E. Burton Adult School annual graduation ceremony, held on July 20 in San Quentin’s main visiting room.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to complete any type of vocational program,” said Francisco Ortiz, a graduate from the Vocational Plumbing class. “I’m proud because I was able to participate in some- thing that will help improve my chances for success.”
The students completed a vocational training course, passed a High School Equivalency test, received a General Education Diploma, or earned a college degree.
“Graduation represents a significant milestone in your lives. You have experienced challenges beyond measure to achieve this goal,” said Ms. D. Searle, an academic instructor and emcee for the event. “You have learned to turn obstacles into opportunities.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is going through a rehabilitation revolution and education opportunities are a top priority, according to keynote speaker Shannon Swain, Superintendent of the Office of Correctional Education.
“I’ve been volunteering on the set-up crew for two years now, and I’ve been in- spired,” said Juan Gonzalez, a vocational Building Maintenance student. “I hope to be in next year’s graduation.”
The curriculum and courses that the students completed meet the College and Career Readiness Standards, which means that they are designed to prepare individuals for success in college, technical training opportunities, and work.
“A RAND Corporation study found that the single most cost-effective method to reduce recidivism ― the rate that people return to prison ― and incarceration is education,” Swain said. “I anticipate that in five years we will have education resource centers, where you can learn anything you want.”
More than two dozen students completed either their General Education Diploma (GED), a High School Equivalency class.
Almost a dozen students received a college degree, and close to 30 finished a vocational training course.
“I’m excited because I feel that I have accomplished something good,” said Hieu Nguyen, a graduate from
Vocational Building Maintenance, “but, I’m also sad be- cause today is the 18th year since I committed my crime. My victim, Jeffrey Rogers, would be about 35 years old and probably would have done more by now.”
Graduate speakers shared stories of what the graduation meant to them and the struggles they encountered along the way.
CTE-Vocational Plumbing graduate Lee Goins spoke about his dropping out of high school and his troubled adolescence in New Orleans.
“When the consequences of my life of crime caught up with me, I was forced to participate in their education department so I decided to pursue a GED,” Goins said. “The first time I failed the test. I felt like it was a waste of time, but a teacher encouraged me to continue until I passed.”
Harry C. Goodall Jr. received an Associate of Arts degree in Social and Behavioral Science from Coastline Community College.
“I can remember times that the course I was taking didn’t have a book available in the college library,” Goodall said. “I had to choose between getting a quarterly package or the book I needed.”
One of Ms. Searle’s students, Peter Shui, struggled with the Reasoning Through the Language Arts section of the GED test because his first language is Mandarin. However, he wrote every paper in Mandarin and English until he passed.
“I’m so proud of what these guys were able to accomplish because the standards are so much higher than before,” Searle said. “The essay used to be the five-paragraph type. Now they have to write an argumentative essay to show that they can reason their way with the language.”
Most of the students are planning to further their education.
Shui, who received his GED, has enrolled in college, and Ortiz plans to move on to another vocational trade.
“Think very seriously about the opportunities that exist to improve your lives,” Swain said. “Utilize the resources that are available to your benefit because education is a gift that no one can ever take from you.”
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