San Quentin’s principal, Ted Roberts, an educational trailblazer, retired from his post after 27 years of service with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Ted Roberts has been at the helm of San Quentin’s Robert E. Burton Adult School for many years. He witnessed first hand the structural changes in education within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), all the while climbing the ladder inside CDCR to be San Quentin’s lead advocate for adult education.
“When I started with the Department of Corrections there were 12 prisons in California,” Roberts said. “The atmosphere was very different back then, California as a whole was a much different place too.”
Roberts began his career with the California Department of Corrections at Soledad State Prison as a vocational instructor.
“I started at that prison in vocations in 1984 as a graphic designer. Back then Soledad was a violent place to work,” Roberts said. “But Soledad was also a training ground for me because much of what I’ve learned stems from Soledad.”
In 1988, Roberts moved on to Avenal State Prison, still as an instructor in graphic design.
“I got to open up a brand new shop and design everything. It was a whole different world,” Roberts said.
Avenal was a brand new prison when he started working there. “It was a level two that had dorm living, Soledad was a level four,” said Roberts. “Where Avenal was a new experience for me. Soledad was old and rigid,” said Roberts. “It was a lighter atmosphere altogether, but I didn’t like the 105-degree heat at all.”
His journey with CDCR began after he took inspiration from his father, Ken Roberts, who encouraged him to join the department.
“My dad worked in corrections for years. He was a sergeant,” Roberts said. “And he taught me everything about working with inmates.”
His father’s motto, treat people the way you want to be treated. “…respect will be given both ways,” said Roberts.
‘NO PLACE LIKE IT’
Born in California, Roberts has lived here most of his life. Even though the state is going through some rough times, he said, “There is no place like it. California has everything,”
Roberts attended Chapman University from 1998 to 2000 obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership. He said it was a wonderful study on how to lead an organization and have a good place to work. From 2000 to 2003, he attended California State University at Stanislaus for his Tier I administrative credential and then State University at Humboldt for his Tier II educational course studies.
“It’s basically the same credential and principles, I can work anywhere in California.” said Roberts.
“I met him after I began working here,” said Frank Kellum, now acting principal for Robert E. Burton Adult School of Education. “At that time I was working in the Maintenance Vocational Building (MVB) Bridging area. I really didn’t see that much of him up close at first. Later I got to meet him and see what his work style was.”
MEET WITH TEACHERS
Kellum has worked in education for 40 years. “I’ve got 20 years here at S.Q. prior to that I taught in public schools in the Bay Area.”
“They had a state audit, and Principal Roberts was very knowledgeable as to what needed to be done to have a successful audit,” Kellum said. “He did that by meeting with the teachers and explaining to them what we needed to do. Then Roberts would go back and check to see if it was done.”
Because of Roberts’ professionalism, Kellum said, his unit got a 100 percent. An audit consists of seeing if you are in compliance with state protocol rules and regulations.
“He would work with anybody. No hesitations about rolling up his sleeves and getting right into it,” said Kellum.
San Quentin’s Television Specialist and Supervisor of the San Quentin Media Center Larry Schneider said they shared a working relationship around technology.
“He was somebody who enjoyed new technology and wanted to see it applied to educational programs.”
Schneider said Roberts was goal oriented and would progressively attack obstacles to obtain completion of those goals. He brought in computer workstations for teachers at a higher level than most of the principals he had seen his 20 plus years of working at San Quentin.
“In light of California’s current budgetary restraints not having Ted Roberts’s knowledge and understanding makes it much more difficult for us to maintain the current levels of educational quality for the inmates at San Quentin,” Schneider said.
“He was a good one who didn’t like to personally appear on camera but Ted was very supportive of the television program itself.”
“I worked with Roberts for a year and knew him prior to my employment 18 months,” said Peter Ainsworth a Teachers Assistant for Robert E. Burton School of Education.
“Mr. Roberts always had our best interest in mind,” said Ainsworth. As a teacher in Japan Ainsworth and Roberts often-shared thoughts on both having taught there.
“His interest in other cultures was genuine and interesting because not a lot of Westerners have been to Asia,” said Ainsworth. “But we both enjoyed teaching and were aware of the short-comings of the Japanese teaching system.”
Ainsworth was an English teacher in Japan for 10 years and said the American educational political system is very different from the Japanese educational political system.
“In Japan I was indispensable but here in America there are many different things that determine person’s usefulness,” he commented.
He said that Roberts was personable with inmates without getting personally involved with them. “I learned a lot from him,” said Ainsworth.
Roberts also worked in Sierra Conservation Center from 1991 to 2001 as a Supervisor that trained inmates for conservation camps.
“I had programs in three camps from the Mexican border to Sacramento that was my range,” said Roberts. “To be in a conservation camp you had to pass the physical fitness test then the firefighters test.”
Roberts was over all the vocational programs from building trades to office and computer refurbishing. He was also able to get back to his passion of graphic arts too.
“Trades to me are a small stepping stones to better yourself, because the majority of men in prison are told all their lives they can’t be successful,” Roberts said. I wanted to show them if you gradually start moving toward something that is small then you’ll eventually get it, and you’ll become successful.”
In 2001 to 2006, Roberts worked as the principal at Pelican Bay State Prison and said it was wonderful with many hard working people there.
“Small staff with volatile inmates,” Roberts said. “I saw a 19 year old get his GED the bad part is he was sentenced to double life.”
In 2006, Roberts migrated here and said there is no place like San Quentin, “this place is a great place to work but an even better place to live.”
He commented that most prisons are isolated with different yards but San Quentin is exceptional with wonderful volunteer programs and educational avenues.
“It’s thriving with energy for men here to better themselves, San Quentin is a game changer for rehabilitation in California prisons” said Roberts. “Plus it has a more settled population than most places.”
However, it was in 2005 when CDCR re-directed 400 vocational instructors. They cut approximately 800 teachers state wide in 2009-2010. “They eliminated all bridging, pre-release and English as a second language and a few more things,” said Roberts. “We lost some real good teachers here. It was a tough time.”
Roberts commented that Prison University Project and Marin Literacy help a great deal with the education of the men at San Quentin. Yet he is most proud of his work as the principal of education here at Robert E. Burton Adult School.
“Warden Ayers and Warden Cullen did a lot for the population. They were both smart leaders,” said Roberts.
He said he was happy that he was able to help the men at San Quentin develop their minds because that is what education does.
“I enjoyed making positive changes through education,” Roberts said. “By making them laugh and just saying hello to an incarcerated person will help them. Believe me it will.”