The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Office of Correctional Education (OCE) presented its first ever Distinguished School award to the Robert E. Burton Adult School at San Quentin State Prison in July.
An award ceremony was held at the prison to acknowledge “exemplary achievements” the school has made above all 34 other accredited schools within CDCR’s prisons.
“It wasn’t surprising it was San Quentin that won this award,” said Ralph Diaz, CDCR Secretary.
“There’s nothing easy about running an agency, school, or prison.” Then he congratulated Michael Wheeless, the school’s principle.
“Schools, by nature, are a blend of many different partnerships,” said Wheeless. He said the partnership today is the CDCR administration, made up of the Office of Correctional Education, San Quentin staff, volunteers and inmate tutors, teaching assistants, gardeners and, of course, the teachers.
Wheeless said when he started teaching at the elementary school level, he had an old concept of teaching: teacher, student, parent.
That changed with experience. “It’s not a one person show,” he said. “It takes everyone working together to make things happen.”
Several students were given the opportunity to speak about their past struggles, staff support, accomplishments and the benefit of education.
“After the first grade, I hated school,” said inmate Tommy Wickerd. He said by age 18, he was in county jail and later went to prison. “Rehabilitation was the last thing on my mind.” He said that was his “ignorant self” in the CDCR.
When educators and students create an exceptional learning atmosphere…
For 17 years, Wickerd said, he’s been sober and not involved in gang activity. “I changed my life.” He thanked all the educators. “The teachers here at San Quentin have a special skill that others don’t have.”
Inmate David Taylor said he dropped out of school at age 16 and learned the business of selling drugs. “Not having a GED or high school diploma made me feel like nothing.” He restarted his education in the county jail but dropped out. He started again at California State Prison, Sacramento but that ended when he was transferred.
The crowd laughed at Taylor’s story about a long “addiction” to watching television soap operas in prison, wasting time.
“I think about going to college for the first time,” said Taylor. He thanked the Robert E. Burton School teachers. Taylor was found suitable for parole earlier this year.
“All teams have to have a captain, and ours is Mr. Wheeless,” said inmate Kevin Schrubb. “If CDCR had an all-star team of teachers, San Quentin would make up half the team.” He said the teachers work with the men, even those who don’t want to come to class or do the work.
Shannon Swain, OCE Superintendent, discussed what makes a good school and how the CDCR education program launched the Distinguished School program. “When you start to look at your own practice, you can reflect and improve to see where you need to grow,” she said before presenting Wheeless with the inaugural Distinguished School honor.
“Thirty five prisons, 12 applied, one made it,” said Ron Davis, San Quentin’s warden. He noted that the education program at his prison would not be possible without staff working in food service, custody, medical, mental health and many other departments. “Everyone’s moving in the same direction,” he said. “It’s really the perfect storm. It comes from staff who care.”
“This is a celebration of professional educators at San Quentin”
“I get invited to a lot of events to speak,” said Diaz. Then he told the story of when he was a young correctional officer working in the education department at Corcoran State Prison. It was then he observed inmates playing domino games in education and making soups with oysters. He said his thought on the matter then was if they weren’t beating each other up, everything was fine. That’s not his outlook today. “We’re in a day where people are actually learning and growing,” he said.
“It happens because of the people,” said Diaz. At San Quentin, he said, there are about 875 men pursuing an education through Burton. Of those, about 160 are studying a technical trade and about 380 are attending college. And he didn’t forget to recognize and thank all the volunteers who provide “over 40,000 hours of their time” each year to help the men. He also thanked the students, and the custody staff for “creating a safe environment.”
“This is a celebration of professional educators at San Quentin,” said Brant Choate, CDCR Director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs. “This event is so important that Ralph Diaz came to speak to you.”
Brant asked the “professional educators” in the room to stand. More than a dozen stood up as the audience applauded them.
“I have taught at private schools, charter schools and public schools—and at the college level,” said Ms D. Searle, the Marin Independent Journal reported. She’s a Burton School teacher in the G.E.D. and high school equivalency program. “I really feel that this has been the most rewarding experience.” She said inmates are an “overlooked population.”
Music for the ceremony was performed by the San Quentin Music Program’s band, Just Us. They were Jeff Atkins, piano and lead vocals; Anthony O’Neal, background vocals; Paul Comeaux, background vocals; Lee Jaspar, guitar; Charles Ross, drums; and Len Walker, bass.
Acknowledging the musical talent of the men in Just Us, Diaz turned to Davis and asked him, jokingly with a smile, “Is there any way to get this band to play at an event outside?” The audience laughed.
Toward the end of the event, there was a question- and-answer session.
Q: How will technology affect teaching in the CDCR?
A: Swain – “I think you’ll see a lot more.” She added that, unless there is “caring staff” technology may not add to the education experience.
Q: When can students earn a living wage (in prison) for attending an education program?
A: Diaz – He questioned if people would participate in education programs for the right reason if pay were the incentive.
Q: How can vocational trade students give back?
A:Swain–“I saw a student teaching another the Pythagorean Theorem.” She said the CDCR has an innovative partnership at Salinas where students participate and build small homes. Brant – “There’s lots of opportunities to give back.” He said inmates can teach others.
Q: What’s being done to shorten the waiting list to get in education programs?
A: Wheeless – He said to get men in programs faster, “we’d have to increase the number of programs.”
Q: What about paying inmate tutors?
A: Swain – The idea that education jobs can be comparable to PIA jobs has been considered.
Q: What about more programs on Level-4 prisons?
A: Diaz – “The challenge with those programs is space.” He said those facilities, when designed in the 1980s, didn’t have education in mind. Also, safety has to be considered, which means the violence would have to be reduced.
Q: Any plans to increase GED credits under Proposition 57, from six months to nine months?
A: Choate – “No.” (The audience laughed) “I think it’s important that this (award) highlights schools’ continuous improvement and work as a professional team,” said Martin D. Griffin, OCE Associate Superintendent. “San Quentin really stood out for having support that results in student success.”
Griffin said CDCR had been working on the award for the last two years. It was finalized in the fall of 2018. He said in February they evaluated applications and later a team visited San Quentin. They came from CDCR headquarters; there was one warden, a community college representative from the chancellor’s office, and an assistant from Career Technical Education (CTE).
According to Griffin, among the ten criteria used to consider which school to award were climate, culture, professional learning and student support. He said five team members visited San Quentin in May, and the award was announced in June.
The final highlight from the day’s event came when Choate sat in with the band and played drums and Swain took to a microphone and sang a spur-of-the-moment rendition of “Hotel California” by the Eagles as the band backed them up. Some of the guests stopped in the aisles and smiled as they observed Swain’s vocals, cheerfulness and the seamless transition from Ross to Choate on the drums.