Five Keys celebrates 25th graduation ceremony for inmate students

LaCarla Carr’s bright orange jail uniform peeked out from under a black graduation gown as she crossed a stage inside the San Francisco County Jail at 850 Bryant St. on Thursday morning.

Incarcerated since 2014, the 34-year-old was one of 18 inmates to receive their high school diplomas through Five Keys Charter School, an accredited high school program for Transitional Age Youth and adults operating in San Francisco County jails that’s part of an education management nonprofit with more than 70 locations throughout California.

School wasn’t an option for Carr before jail, and seemed even more out of reach upon her incarceration — or so she thought.

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“I had dropped out of high school at the age of 16,” said Carr, adding that she was pregnant at the time of her arrest. “So when my [Five Keys] teachers told me that I needed 180 credits to graduate, I was like, ‘Heck no! Too much.’”

Carr’s graduation marked the 25th graduation ceremony since Five Keys’ inception 15 year ago. Founded by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department in 2003 as the first charter school in the nation to operate inside a county jail, Five Keys has produced 2,210 graduates — and has touched lives far beyond the students enrolled.

“This is a step toward family reunification, returning home, getting a successful job and going on to further education,” said Steve Good, executive director of Five Keys. Individuals who complete their high school diploma while incarcerated have a “greater than 50 percent chance of not coming back,” he said.

The program was launched with the goal of producing 20 high school graduates each year. “We have 18 graduating today, and our community graduates 200 [people] a year. That’s 10 times our initial goal,” said Good, smiling.

Of those taking advantage of the Five Keys program, about 300 students enrolled are currently in custody, up from 200 in 2008, according to Good. The program is offered at The City’s two jails — 850 Bryant St. and Seventh Street — as well as at its San Bruno jail.

Through community partnerships formed in recent years, Five Keys has expanded to offer a continued education for students who are released from jail before completing their degree, and even for those who have not been incarcerated and would like to receive a diploma or GED.

Enrollment for out-of-custody students has increased significantly. Between 75 and 100 out-of-custody students graduate twice a year, said Good.

Former Police Commission President Suzy Loftus addresses the families and supporters of graduating San Francisco County Jail inmates. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner)

“We found throughout The City, in different neighborhoods, a high concentration of disengaged Transitional Age Youth and nonprofits working with them that lacked [a] solid education program,” Good said. Working with nonprofits and institutions such as the YMCA, Walden House and Goodwill, Good said that Five keys provides “credentialed teachers and a fully accredited program” at community sites.

On Thursday, the graduates who addressed their loved ones and supporters spoke to the challenges of pursuing an education behind bars, including coming to terms with the trials, tribulations and missteps that marked their lives prior to incarceration.

“School wasn’t always easy for me,” said graduate Darius Boone, who was diagnosed with dyslexia in the sixth grade. “I didn’t know what that meant but as the years went on, I got more and more frustrated with reading, especially out loud in class. I ended up dropping out.”

With the help of his Five Keys instructors, Boone said he learned how to “work around” his condition. He plans on taking advantage of Five Keys’ partnership with City College of San Francisco, which offers a pathway to college for inmates with select classes.

Five Keys graduate Danny Lockett Jr. grew up as one of six children in a home stewarded by a single mother. One of his biggest regrets, the 19-year-old said, was missing the birth of his own son due to his incarceration.

“I’ve taken responsibility for the good and bad in my life,” he said, adding that he also plans to enroll in CCSF classes during his remaining time in jail. “This experience has taught me that time doesn’t wait.”

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