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Sheriff’s Department awarded $100,000 by Harvard for inmate charter school

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Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi laughs with Steve Good of Five Keys Charter School and Harvard’s Marty Mauzy while receiving The Innovation in American Government Award Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015 (Kevin Kelleher/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department became the only law enforcement agency in the nation Tuesday to twice win a prestigious award from Harvard University for the County Jail’s charter high school program.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said the department plans to hire one or two new teachers for the Five Keys Charter High School with the $100,000 that comes with the 2015 Innovations in American Government Award.

The program was chosen by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard over some 450 other applicants. On the nationwide shortlist was also Treasurer Jose Cisneros’ program to start college savings accounts for kindergartners in The City, Mirkarimi said.

Since the school was founded in 2003 by then-Sheriff Mike Hennessey as the first charter school in a U.S. municipal jail, it has spread to Los Angeles and Solano counties.

Mirkarimi has also shifted the program outside of jails, making Five Keys an option for those on probation, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

“What this sheriff has done is take a government program and make it the best in the country,” former Mayor Art Agnos told the San Francisco Examiner. “It’s a spectacular achievement.”

Students who go through the Five Keys program are less likely to return to jail than other inmates, according to the Sheriff’s Department. The recidivism rate on felony charges for students is 28 percent, compared to the statewide rate of 61 percent in 2013.

“What we are doing in our jails and in under-served communities is not effortlessly issuing diplomas,” said Mirkarimi. “But rather recognizing that bad mistakes, poor decisions and missed opportunities do not define the people who enter into our custody.”

Mirkarimi and the program’s Executive Director Steve Good accepted the award Tuesday morning at City Hall’s South Light Court in a ceremony attended by the sheriff’s command staff and Five Keys staff.

“The pride and accomplishment on their faces keeps me motivated everyday,” Alice Hargis, a founding member of Five Keys, said of her student inmates. One student told her after class “‘I used to think that my crimes had no victims, but now I see I am wrong.’”

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