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Unlocking potential: S.F. County Jail offers first college credit classes to inmates

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Inmates of the San Francisco County Jail partake in a child development course on Thursday, July 23, 2015. (Michael Ares/Special to the S.F. Examiner)
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Until this year, Tamara Washington didn’t anticipate she would receive a high school diploma.

But last month, while incarcerated at San Francisco County Jail, Washington graduated from high school. As of this week the 34-year-old Solano County native — while still incarcerated — is also on her way to receiving her first-ever credit for a college course.

“I like to say it: ‘I’m taking a college course,’” Washington said on Thursday morning, beaming. “It sounds so mature.”

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Washington is enrolled in a child development class that began instruction Tuesday at The City’s women’s jail at the Hall of Justice. The class is part of a new partnership between City College of San Francisco, the Sheriff’s Department and Five Keys Charter School (the first charter school in the U.S. to operate inside a county jail) to offer inmates a pathway to college.

On Thursday, CCSF’s Board of Trustees approved a memorandum of understanding for the partnership, marking the final administrative step in establishing the program that has been years in the making, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said.

“We’ve been pushing to create a durable pipeline from in-custody junior college education to post-custody college education,” Mirkarimi told the San Francisco Examiner.

The idea, he explained, is to enroll both male and female inmates in classes taught by CCSF instructors while in jail, and to help facilitate the students’ continued higher education once they are released.

Educators with CCSF and Five Keys Charter School, where inmates already may earn high school diplomas or GEDs, will teach the classes in both jail and at CCSF once the inmates are released. The first college credit class debuted July 6, and as of Thursday, three courses with a total of 83 students had been completed.

“Most of the people in jail have really, never literally, thought about going to college,” said Steve Good, executive director of Five Keys. “This is really demonstrating for them that not only can they complete their high school diploma, but college is completely accessible and a possibility for them.”

“They’re getting college credit for taking [a] class, something they never thought might have occurred,” Good added.

The model combines short courses with career pathways, in which inmates complete one to two short courses in jail and receive a certificate at a regular CCSF site once they are released. The initial career pathways include youth worker certificates, alcohol and drug certificates for training in substance abuse recovery programs and custodial certificates.
Upon release, students may continue classes mainly at CCSF’s Southeast campus, which is also home to Five Keys Charter School.

“I am grateful to our Board of Trustees for approving this important agreement with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and Five Keys Charter School to expand our partnership,” CCSF interim Chancellor Susan Lamb said in a statement to the Examiner. “We look forward to implementing this program and perhaps expanding it as demand and needs evolve.”

School officials plan to add more pathways as demand increases. If participation in Five Keys Charter School, in which nearly half of the 1,250 or so inmates in The City’s county jails pursue an education, is any indication, inmates will most likely jump at the chance to also receive college credit while in jail, Mirkarimi said.

“If we can continue to provide and incentivize these durable pipelines, like into City College … then I’m banking on the idea that we’re improving public safety and there’s a greater chance that these people will not return back to the criminal justice system,” Mirkarimi said.

Expanding educational offerings will only allow more students to participate as well, Mirkarimi noted. The move will also help CCSF, which has seen double-digit enrollment drops in recent years when the school faced the potential loss of its accreditation. The school remains open and fully accredited today.

Meanwhile, back in Thursday’s child development class taught jointly by CCSF instructor Linda Mickelson and Five Keys teacher Gale Rosboro, Washington and 18 other students ,clad in orange jail-issued clothes, soaked up a lesson about a child’s behavior while playing.

“This is my first time actually looking in to see if I want to further my education,” said Washington. She is partially taking the class because she has three children, but she also wants to explore possible careers.

“It gives you somewhat of a motivation or inside scoop on how things work, or if it’s something you want to do,” Washington said of potentially pursuing a college degree once she is released.

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