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Diplomas behind bars offer students second chance

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A pioneering charter high school for adults housed within San Francisco County jails won approval this week to triple its size, a move that could bolster its ability to graduate inmates and reduce rates of recidivism.

Five Keys Charter High School, founded in 2003, was the first charter high school in the United States to open its doors within a jail.

Since then, a handful have opened across the country, including schools in Albuquerque, N.M., Eau Claire, Wis., and Raleigh, N.C., the latter of which was shut down in 2006.

Although Five Keys enrolls more than 200 inmate and parolee students of all ages per year, it could only accept 20 to 25 in independent study — a problem when county jails lack classroom space and many inmates must be kept separate due to gang affiliations, according to Sheriff Michael Hennessy.

“When you have the Hall of Justice Jail with 800 prisoners and no classrooms, it’s tough to do anything but independent study,” Hennessy said.

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In June, the San Francisco Board of Education approved two new charters for Five Keys, including space for up to 60 independent-study students as well as making room for a new high school and an adult school for former inmates who need help acquiring job skills — and jobs. Classes or independent study will be offered in most jail facilities, including two in San Bruno.

Although more than half of county jails offer some kind of high school equivalency program, almost none are certified by the California Department of Education — meaning students must meet state graduation standards and pass the California High School Exit Exam to graduate.

Five Keys’ waiting list has at least 180 inmates on it, Hennessy said.

“We have people who have failed time and time again in school,” said Steve Good, Five Keys’ executive director. “They’re clean and sober, and they have time on their hands — so if they’re not [in class], or participating in another program, they’re busy becoming better criminals.”

Statistics show that inmates who obtain a high school diploma while incarcerated or shortly after they're released are 20 percent less likely to be arrested again, according to Hennessy.

Former inmate Lenita Lloyd graduated this week after two years in Five Keys. She enrolled shortly after being convicted of first-degree burglary in August 2006 and sentenced to the women’s jail.

Lloyd left high school at 16 in favor of a job and an apartment of her own. “This time, I was more serious about school, more motivated,” Lloyd said. “I’m the first in my family to graduate high school.”


Inmates and education by the numbers


2,244: Inmates in county jails

55 percent: Recidivism rate


47: Percent of county-jail inmates who have not completed high school

18: Percent of U.S. general population that has not completed high school

26: Percent of state-prison inmates who complete the General Educational Development test while incarcerated

77: Percent of inmates without a diploma or GED who have been arrested more than once

71: Percent of inmates with a diploma who have been arrested more than once

66: Percent of inmates with some college education who have been arrested more than once

Sources: San Francisco County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Bureau of Justice

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