From Prison to Community: Part 4, Community High School

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(Host) Vermont’s largest high school has no principal and no sports teams.

There are no parent teacher conferences either.

Yet every one of the school’s students has been in trouble.

In part four of this week’s prison series, VPR’s Steve Zind tells us about this unique educational institution.

(Teacher) “Assessments and criteria. The student will receive one half credit in the subject area of language arts. So that’s how much this class is worth.”

(Zind) Welcome to the Community High School of Vermont, Newport campus.

Inside it feels like a school. There are modestly furnished classrooms, a machine shop and a computer room. Kids horse around in the hall.

Of course, you can’t see the twin chain link fences topped with bright razor wire that circle these walls at the Northern State Correction Facility in Newport.

These students are also inmates.

(Teacher) “School is like’ or as’ blank-blank-blank.”

(Zind) This particular class is on poetry. Matt Peirce is one of the students.

(Peirce) “I thought it was going to be boring, just sitting there going over poems, but I think I’m going to like it.”

(Zind) Peirce is a 19-year-old from Saint Johnsbury. He’s serving a year in prison on a burglary related charge. He arrived here with no high school diploma and a chip on his shoulder.

(Peirce) “I was extremely negative about everyone and everything.”

(Zind) When he got to prison, Peirce enrolled in Community High School of Vermont. He didn’t want to. He had to.

By law everyone under Department of Corrections supervision who is under the age of 22 and doesn’t have a high school diploma has to take classes at the school and work toward their degree. According to the department, about 90% of the young people it supervises haven’t graduated from high school.

Community High School offers classes at corrections facilities around the state. For those on probation or parole there are classes at seven additional locations statewide. In all about 4000 students attend Community High School classes. They’re taught by 47 full time and more than 300 part time teachers.

To the teachers these are students – not inmates or prisoners. Sharon Strange has taught at the Newport prison for a year. For most of her career she’s been an elementary school teacher.

(Strange) “There is less discipline involved in teaching here than there was when I worked in elementary school.”

(Zind) The students Strange teaches now tended to fade into the woodwork when they were in public schools, unless they caused too much trouble. At Community High School the classes are small and there’s a lot of one on one attention.

(Strange) “We hold them to higher standards than many public high schools do. They have to be proficient in reading and writing and math.”

(Zind) Robert Lucenti has been superintendent of Community High School throughout its 21-year history. Lucenti says the school also educates older inmates who enroll voluntarily.

(Lucenti) ” who have decided, enough is enough. I can’t make it over the fence anymore.”

(Zind) Many of the people in Community High School were special education students in public school. Some have to begin by learning how to read well enough to take classes. Eventually they enroll in vocational education classes, math, science and humanities courses.

Lucenti says when it began in the 1980s Community High School of Vermont only gave out GED’s – high school equivalencies. One day he met with a group of student inmates in St. Albans and asked them what they wanted to get out of the school.

(Lucenti) “They were very clear to me that they wanted real school, real teachers and a real diploma. They want those rituals of a graduation. They want to feel like they’ve been successful as something they’ve failed at.”

(Zind) In the 1990s, the legislature approved Community High School as an independent school and students began earning high school diplomas instead of GEDs. Every year there’s a graduation ceremony. Recently the program took the unusual step of seeking accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Does getting a diploma really keep these young people from returning to crime and ultimately to prison? Lucenti says no one’s yet collected the statistics to say for sure. But he thinks he knows the answer.

(Lucenti) “We’re in this business because we feel our communities are safer when we can turn people out that can get jobs and participate in their families and communities successfully and only education is going to do that.”

(Zind) Before he ended up in prison Matt Peirce bounced between several high schools. He never experienced success at school until Community High School.

(Peirce) “It really made me feel good about myself and yeah, it will help me when I get out because it did change my attitude. It did help me. I think this was one of the biggest reasons that my attitude changed.”

(Zind) Peirce will earn his diploma before he gets out of prison. Once he’s released, he’ll go back home to St. Johnsbury. He’s worried about how he’ll do when he gets out. With or without a high school diploma, he says it’s not easy finding a job when you’ve got a prison record.

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