Accrediting organization audits PUP classes to assess the university’s effectiveness
PUP applied for independent college accreditation in August, and the ACCJC team came to scrutinize whether or not PUP actually fulfills the principles and procedures detailed in its application and institutional self-evaluation report (ISER).
“I don’t want to be called the accreditation police,” said the ACCJC committee’s Team Chair, Dr. Keith Curry, President of Compton College.
“I’m here to make organizations be successful. There are standards we have to review. We are validating questions of governance.”
Comprised of faculty from accredited colleges throughout California, the visiting Peer Review Team will process everything they learned and observed in order to generate a 40-60 page report, due within 30 days, for ACCJC consideration.
Curry welcomed students’ input, questions and thoughts during two open forums in the SQ chapel on Oct. 21.
In the first forum’s hour and a half, more than 20 incarcerated students spoke up about their PUP experience.
“My journey to education was a hard one. I wouldn’t let anything get in,” said Richard D. Lathan, pausing with tears in his eyes to regain his composure.
“It took me 17 times to pass my GED,” he continued. “For the longest time, I saw education as only consisting of books. But when I came to PUP, I felt the humanization.
“PUP humanized everything that you see, and today I’m a better person. It’s a new world, I know—but I can make it.”
Curry expressed his appreciation for all the students’ avid responses.
“We’ve done lots of these forums at schools throughout the state,” he explained. “This is the first time people raised their hands and were ready to talk to us right from the start.”
Curry also asked the students to speak briefly about a favorite paper they’d written during a PUP class and the research and resources available to them.
Almost every student in attendance described the impact their papers made on their intellectual growth. From the wealth of topics discussed, the ACCJC team gained a clearer picture of the doors PUP continues to open in students’ minds.
Tony Trinidad spoke about the ordeal he had writing on Marx and Nietzsche.
“It felt like a battle, but it felt good,” he said. “My girlfriend—she’s real educated, has her master’s. It gave me something to battle it out with her when we’d talk.”
“It feels good to hear about your research and what you’re doing in the classrooms,” Curry said to the students. “How you’ve all been able to articulate that says a lot.”
The first student to speak at the second forum, Rafael Cuevas, immediately turned the tables on Curry and the ACCJC panel.
“I came to challenge everybody’s thoughts on what education is. Is this a model?” he asked. “See, my experience in prison made me resistant, made me empowered.
“PUP gives me the chance to exercise that power. What does it look like outside in your spaces?”
Laurie Huffman, an ACCJC Peer Review member from Los Medanos College, quickly responded.
“Fabulous question. I’m around a lot of students of color, and one of the things we need to focus on is the equity piece,” said Huffman. “Everyone needs to have opportunities at education. Barriers need to be taken away.
“There’s a real community college movement going on right now. We’re starting to look at alternative ways of course delivery—nontraditional delivery. Yours is an example.”
“But it has to be centered on quality,” she said. “There’s a tremendous attention to quality at this prison—many things we see here that we wish we could do at other institutions, at community colleges.”
Curry appreciated the detour caused by Cuevas’ question. “I could philosophize about education all day,” he said. “There should be no barriers to success. We all want to see things like free tuition and the kind of support services that enable students to succeed inside and out.
“Our goal is to see the breakup of every single barrier—every single one, so any student can be successful. We have to figure out together what that new structure looks like.”
Curry then told the second forum what he’d learned from the first forum earlier in the day. “Listening to everyone talking about their papers, especially their research papers—you had limited resources but still wrote those papers,” he said.
“What I got today was a whole new set of possibilities. Don’t tell me you can’t do it—at SQ they’re doing it.”
PUP Executive Director Jody Lewen listened to the interactions with her student body and brimmed with pride. “It was mic drop after mic drop after mic drop,” she told SQNews afterward.
“I love all the history behind San Quentin, but this is my first time seeing the college program here,” said Irvin. “This is the only penal institution the ACCJC has ever considered for accreditation.
“It’s been very special coming here and seeing the passion, seeing the people that believe in this program.”
Irvin explained ACCJC’s emphasis on upholding high standards. “The goal of our report is to make sure our standards are being met, that everything is working well,” he said. “We’re going to say, ‘You either meet the standards or you don’t—here’s a couple of things to help you.’
“One thing I’ll say about PUP—it’s not about the X’s and O’s. It’s about the education. I’m very impressed with the humanity and humanness I’ve seen. Very impressed.”
Irvin said that once a school becomes fully accredited, the accreditation is good for six years. Renewal of accreditation requires an updated ISER and new on-site evaluation.
ACCJC conducts training sessions for potential Peer Review Team members and puts together different combinations of evaluators unique to each campus’ visit.
“Our report won’t reflect just one voice—it’s everybody’s voice,” said Irvin. “This is a very good group with me here at SQ. We all believe in what we’re doing.”
The four-day evaluation also included meetings and forums outside the prison at the team’s hotel in nearby Larkspur. PUP faculty, instructors and alumni attended these events to offer insight into the individualized attention paid to students, the volunteer model of team-taught classes and students’ transitions to college environments outside.
“It might not be perfect, but it works out,” noted Curry while absorbing the outside voices. “It always works out.”
After ACCJC completes the initial draft of their report, PUP will have 30 days to check it for corrections before the final draft is submitted.
The report will recommend one of three options: 1) grant PUP candidacy for accreditation; 2) grant candidacy and initial accreditation; or 3) deny candidacy.
On the last day of their visit, the ACCJC chair gave a brief presentation on what stood out to the team about PUP. Curry said he was only there to deliver their overall thoughts—not to take or answer any questions.
“We recommend the college work on their comprehensive systematic approach, focusing on outcome assessment, constituent roles and a regular evaluation process for effectiveness,” stated Curry. “And communicate these things to your students.
“Regularly assess the quality and currency of student outcomes.”