FAMILIES, LOVED ONES OF THE INCARCERATED ATTEND SQ EDUCATION DEPARTMENT’S FIRST GRADUATION SINCE 2019
On July 28, San Quentin’s Garden Chapel became a focal point of frenetic energy as final preparations were made to honor more than 100 graduates of Robert E. Burton Adult School’s combined academic and Career Technical Education programs.
As grads were being fitted with traditional black caps and gowns, their visitors and guests began trickling in, one family at a time.
Jane Wallace and Jan Divine made the trek from Pasadena and Reseda, Calif., to see their friend, incarcerated computer coder Scott Lardizabal, receive his core certificate in Computer Related Technology. A first-time visitor, Wallace looked overwhelmed as she crossed through the massive iron threshold and took in the Garden Chapel and Peace Officer’s Memorial. Spotting Lardizabal waiting expectantly in the courtyard, she hurried toward him with her arms thrown open wide and her eyes already wet.
“Am I allowed to hug you?” she cried. After a quick embrace, they separated and Wallace offered a sweeping gesture at the garden setting. “This is beautiful … Wow.”
Wallace had just been through an exasperating, tear-inducing dress-code issue that nearly kept her from entering the prison, but she was determined not to miss this for the world. In recovery herself, she knows the power of change and personal transformation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved in my life,” she told SQNews later. “I’m so proud of my friend, Scott, and everyone who is graduating today. They didn’t come here on a winning streak, but they’re changing their lives.”
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
In 2019, CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education created its Distinguished School Award. Robert E. Burton Adult School was recognized as its very first recipient, graded on factors including school culture, professional learning, and student support.
At that time, there were 35 prisons in California, each with its own accredited academic program. Yet even Ralph Diaz, then-secretary of CDCR, was unsurprised that it was San Quentin’s education department, under the leadership of Principal Michael Wheeless, that earned the honor.
That year’s commencement ceremony saw many graduates praising Wheeless’ approachability and crediting their instructors’ encouragement for their accomplishments.
A few short months later, the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down from coast-to-coast, hitting San Quentin especially hard. Prison administrators and educators struggled to deal with the deadly virus while somehow continuing to provide some kind of educational programming to prison residents who were unable to venture forth from their cells.
On the fly, they designed a new system to provide some ongoing educational instruction through the mail, offering encouragement through handwritten notes to students, keeping their minds on-track and occupied as everyone in the prison wrestled with fear and grief.
The reopening of the Burton Adult School for in-person learning was a process of fits and starts as Covid kept rearing its ugly head, forcing repeated quarantines. It’s been four years since the school was able to hold a commencement ceremony, but in that time, through sheer perseverance and dedication, more than 350 students have earned certificates, diplomas, equivalencies, and college degrees.
It is a testament to the changing focus of California corrections, to a less punitive and more rehabilitative approach, that more than two-thirds of these student have moved on from San Quentin. Most of them returned to their communities and their families with a sense of achievement and accomplishment, having gained a new set of tools to equip them for success in the world.
“I’m very pleased that we are able to do this,” said Principal Wheeless. “I’m thankful we are not on a modified program [for Covid]… We are able to have friends and family come in to celebrate the achievements of our graduates. It’s been a long time coming.”
Looking forward, Wheeless sees the education of the incarcerated becoming an even greater priority as rehabilitation and reentry take center-stage in the California prison system.
“It’s key,” he said. “It’s one of the key components of Governor Newsom’s initiatives to introduce the California Model of rehabilitation.”
WORDS OF INSPIRATION
It was an atmosphere of joyous celebration, of pride and accomplishment. Around 8:30 that morning, a line of loved ones from outside began to file into the chapel. Most were wearing smiles; one was already in tears. In the background, San Quentin’s own band, The Greater Good, began to tune up, running through a few quick notes and sharing welcoming smiles with the visitors.
As the first few notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” filled the air, grads began entering the chapel in a single continuous line. In seconds, families and friends were on their feet, the applause and screams of encouragement overwhelming the live music as ear-to-ear smiles broke out in a wave across the faces in the room.
Once the procession of graduates had reached their seats, everyone in the packed auditorium remained standing and the room fell silent as incarcerated veterans of San Quentin’s Honor Guard presented the state and national colors. The California Republic flag was dipped in respect as the instrumental sounds of the National Anthem washed over the crowd. On-stage the sign language interpreter offered a moving interpretation of the music, a flowing performance that stood in contrast to the stoic expressions on the faces of the former soldiers.
Master of Ceremonies Ms. D. Searle looked out over the assembly and expressed her pride and gratitude for the efforts of the graduates before her.
“We had over 350 graduates from our combined technical and academic programs,” she said. “Students who defied the odds. … This serves as a testament to their strength and character.”
Then she announced the first of five graduate speakers, Milton Alcantara, whose multilingual English-Spanish presentation had everyone’s attention as he reflected on the mistakes he made before coming to prison.
“I chose the streets over my family,” Alcantara admitted. “I lived as if I had no family, as if I had no ancestors, as if I had no future.”
He unknowingly echoed grads from the school’s last commencement ceremony in 2019, crediting Principal Wheeless for getting him back on track to earn his high school diploma.
He also thanked his teacher for her dedication. “Sufi did the work to keep her students on-track during the pandemic,” Alcantara said, recalling taking an algebra test in the North Block rotunda while sitting on a milk crate in the middle of a pandemic. “All of this stands as a testament to what we can achieve.”
Though he hated school as a child, Alcantara has learned to love learning. On graduation day, he was receiving his high school diploma, as well as certification as a Peer Literacy Mentor. He will be receiving his Associate of Arts degree this fall, moving on to a bachelor’s thereafter.
Another graduate speaker was James Duff, whose opening words held the audience’s rapt attention: “I lost my father — twice.”
First, when he was just three years old, his birth father was assassinated in Thailand. Years later, his adopted father lost his life to brain cancer in 2012. Devastated by the loss, Duff dropped out of college and lost his way. At San Quentin, however, he found it again and has now earned his Computer Related Technology core certificate.
Again, the refrain was heard: “Principal Wheeless was instrumental to my success.”
“I want you to see how important education is,” Duff told his peers. “We have a second chance to change our lives; education is the key to our future. Tomorrow is built on today.”
The time came for graduates to take the stage, one by one, to receive their honors.
The first name to be called was Jose Acevedo, who strode proudly across the stage with his head held high, accepting his core certificate in Computer Related Technology to a live soundtrack of screams and applause.
Acevedo was one of 44 individuals receiving Computer Related Technology certificates. Twelve other graduates received Career Technical Education certificates for the Vocational Machine Shop or Plumbing programs, while 10 were honored as certified Peer Literacy Mentors. Forty-five received high school diplomas or equivalencies, and 10 students graduated from various colleges, including Coastline and Feather River.
Several students were called to take the stage more than once. Mark Jarosik received both CTE and Peer Literacy Mentor certificates. Milton Alcantara received his Peer Literacy Mentor certificate, in addition to his high school diploma.
The women of Anthony Denard’s family leapt to their feet twice for him as he received his Computer Related Technology certificate and another for Vocational Plumbing. Their screams of support brought smiles to his face, as did their support of his friends who were also graduating.
Overachiever Donald Edge received dual Associate of Arts degrees in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Coastline and Lassen Colleges, while simultaneously earning his Computer Related Technology core certification.
One of the most notable graduates was Walter Reid, who at the age of 65 earned his Associate degree in Liberal Arts and Humanities from West Hills College.
BRINGING FREEDOM IN
One of the most powerful, but understated, facets of the day’s events was the involvement of family and loved ones and their ability to celebrate their graduates’ achievements in-person.
Scott Lardizabal later reflected on the impact of having his friends in from the outside community to show their support.
“I haven’t seen family or friends in five years,” he said. “The distance from L.A. makes it hard to travel.
“So when I graduated, it meant a lot to me that Jane [Wallace] and Jan [Divine] showed up. They’ve supported me from day one, and it was an awesome feeling to see them in person, to give them a hug, to have that human touch.”
His sentiment was echoed on the faces of all incarcerated grads who had supporters from the community present to share in their moment. And the impact wasn’t only felt by the incarcerated.
“Jane was very touched and emotional,” Lardizabal said, a smile on his face. “She cried during the entire ceremony.”