By David Ditto and Michael Johnson, Staff Writers.
Tasseled caps and gowns flowed as diplomas, degrees and certificates were conferred in San Quentin’s visiting room during Robert E. Burton Adult School’s 2019 Commencement. College, high school, and vocational program graduates celebrated their accomplishments with family, friends, teachers, and administrators at the annual ceremony on July 26.
“We’re so proud of all the incredibly hard work you have put in,” said teacher and emcee H. Lucas to the graduating class. “Not everyone in your block put in the blood, sweat, and tears you have,” she added. “What you have overcome to get to this place is no small thing.”
25-year-old Tye Barker was the first graduate speaker at the ceremony. He described growing up while his father was in and out of prison, “I lost out on so much because I didn’t graduate.”
Later, imprisoned as a young father himself, Barker realized he was headed in the wrong direction. “My kids needed me to change,” he said to the audience. Barker was one of eight graduates from San Quentin’s new High School Diploma program.
“Tye really turned his life around,” said Ms. Anita Kaur Sufi, the teacher for the program. “Now he’s ready for college, a career, and anything he sets his mind on.”
Sufi said that the diploma program is an alternative to the equivalency program. She explained that it began after Brant Choate, Director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs, saw the need for another pathway for students who already have many credits to acquire a certified high school education.
Receiving a six-month education credit, Barker went home two weeks after graduating.
“I came to San Quentin with a third- to fourth-grade education,” said Tommy Wickerd, the second graduate speaker. He said he confessed to his teachers that the 12.9 grade-level test scores on his record were actually from cheating when he first came to prison. “I slid through the cracks for 15 years.”
“At San Quentin I learned how to set and achieve goals,” Wickerd said. He ran three marathons and earned his GED in his almost four years at the Q. “On the final math test for my GED, I got a 149– four points more than I needed. Now I know what an over- achiever feels like! Now the 12.9 is mine – and the GED!”
“This is monumental,” said GED graduate Earl Orr’s sister Patsy Orr. “He’s my first brother to get his GED.” She said their older brother spent about 10 years in and out of San Quentin in the 1970s after serving in the Vietnam War. “In San Quentin back then, they worked out and smoked. That’s it. No classes, no groups,” Patsy said. “I wish they had this quality education program back then. Earl has found himself again through education. I’m so amazed at the change.”
Earl met his 19-year-old granddaughter Ariel Klimpel for the first time at the gradu- ation. She said: “I walked right up and hugged him. It felt so good!”
Coastline Community College graduate Adamu Chan obtained his A.S. degree in Business. Chan said that the experience taught him responsibility, follow-through and self-motivation.
John Bergeron, a Feather River college graduate, obtained an A.A. degree in Social and Behavioral Science. “I never really finished anything in my life,” he said. But now, he said, he is the first person in his family to finish college.
Graduate Watson Allison received his A.A. degree in Social Science from Lassen College. He was the speaker for the college graduates. He started his speech with a quote from Malcolm X, “‘Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.’ I’ve heard that quote many times as a youth. How- ever, it didn’t make sense, but today it does.” Allison spent 30 years on Death Row after a murder conviction at the age of 23. In 2013 his death sentence was overturned. “Then I was transferred to Solano Prison, where the CC3 counselor assigned me a mentor to help me adjust from death row living. By May 27, 2014, I passed the test for my GED. It was the first positive accomplishment in my life.”
Vocational Plumbing graduate Vadim Zakharchenko said, “I wanted vocational training because I want a career in the construction industry.” He plans to work for his brother-in-law doing prefab homes when he gets out.
Plumbing instructor Pryor said that his vocational class has a lot of math and isn’t easy, but has tutors in the class to help. He said that he “has had five guys parole and make a career out of this training.”
Machine Shop instructor J. Johnson said, “These guys can take this experience and apply for good paying jobs.”
College proctor Mr. Young said, “The guys here today have overcome all their fail- ures of the past…This is the happiest day of the year.”
Principal Wheeless said, “It takes a lot of hard work by the students to get to this day of celebration and I commend them.”
“I feel so encouraged – full of joy and a sense of accomplishment,” said graduate George Moss the day after he passed his final GED test – just a week before the graduation. Moss persevered through the flu, surgery, lockdowns and administrative segregation during the two years he worked on earning his GED.
Incarcerated for 14 years, he wanted to quit school and learn plumbing when he arrived at San Quentin.
Principal Wheeless told him, “No. Just knock this GED out first.” “I thought it was punishment,” said Moss. He said that now he is grateful to the principal, his teacher D. Searle and tutor Quincy Paige.
Now, after earning their high school equivalencies, both Moss and Paige are en- rolling in Vocational Plumbing.
Andrew Smith is a GED graduate from the Voluntary Education Program (VEP). He said he received excellent one-on-one tutoring from the Teachers’ Aide and said, “Thanks to my teacher, Dr. Marez, for pushing me in the right direction.”
“I never thought I would do it because of my incarceration,” said graduate Luis Ojeda. “But look – now I got my GED!” He said that Mr. Kaufman, the teacher in the ABE I class where he began, was always there to help him and motivate him to get to the next level.
“Now I’m confident,” Ojeda said. He will go home in about a year. “Inside or outside – I’m going to get my college degree.”
Twenty-three-year-old Raiveon Wooden received his high school diploma at the ceremony. He acknowledged help from his teachers M. Ficarra and Mr. Santos to get him ready for the diploma program. Wooden said that with his high school diploma, now he envisions a better job, a brighter future and college.
The 2019 class included 78 graduates, about half of whom attended the graduation. Many had already paroled.
Total number of Graduates:
- High School: 8
- GED: 43
- Coastline: 7
- Lassen: 1
- Feather River: 1
- CTE: 18