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Five Keys Schools and Programs continues educating incarcerated adult high school seniors amidst COVID-19

SAN FRANCISCO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–As high school seniors across the country hold drive-through, ZOOM and other socially distanced graduation ceremonies, Tiara Arnold, 27, will be celebrating her own graduation milestone, albeit, alone in her cell at Alameda County Santa Rita Jail, in Dublin CA. She’s been quarantined since March to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak.

“I’m super excited and I keep saying to myself, ‘I did it. I did it,’” said Tiara Arnold, who was arrested at age 17, placed in maximum security at Santa Rita, moved to a prison and is back on appeal. “When I got arrested, my life was really going in the wrong direction. I was really distracted and made a lot of poor decisions. But while life was progressing for everyone else, I didn’t go to prom, I didn’t graduate from high school and I didn’t get to do the one thing my mom asked me to do which was to get my high school diploma. I was in the worst place my life could be. But now since people invested so much in me and helped me believe in myself, I am determined to lead a life that is meaningful and helpful to others. I plan to go to college and hope to help my mom with her business and help other at-risk kids who are struggling.”

Thanks to the creativity and exceptional adjustments of Five Keys Schools and Programs and local Sherriff’s departments, Arnold’s experience underscores that of other inmates who are graduating from high school at the Alameda jail and custody facilities in San Francisco and Sonoma County. This is despite COVID-19 challenges to education and roadblocks exacerbating the disruption: prisoners do not have access to the Internet, so unlike traditional high schools, they could not immediately shift their curriculums online.

When the coronavirus started to spread, teachers, principals and corrections officers faced a dilemma – how to continue educating incarcerated students as jails shut down and education for most students in traditional schools moved online. It was a significant pivot, as getting a high school degree reduces a person’s likelihood of re-incarceration by 43 percent, according to a report by the RAND Corporation.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment for the students who really took on the extra challenges, like being locked down in their cells and not be able to meet with their teachers on site, to push through and get across the graduation finish line,” said Lillian Stables, principal at Five Keys for the Alameda jail site.

For nearly two months now, Five Keys teachers have engaged students through self-paced programs and alternative learning, by delivering packets of curriculum to the jails and pushing student inmates to study independently.

“We just had to get creative and sent in letters of support and homework and in my case, I just told my students that they can call me when they needed extra help so we can get them into this home stretch,” said Rose Kleiner, a teacher at San Francisco County Jail #4, at 850 Bryant Street in San Francisco. “Even in the best of times, it can be daunting for them, but now the teachers can’t come in and they can’t see their families and are confined to their cells. That makes it pretty tough.”

But the inmates who are defying the odds and graduating this month “are a tenacious and resourceful bunch,” said Lisa Paoloni, a teacher at Sonoma County’s two jail facilities, which typically hold 1,050 to 1,100 inmates.

Five Keys teachers sprang into action to figure out how to provide remote learning for students, and most teachers scramble to create a detailed COVID-19 overhaul of their curricula.

“We met with the teachers and coordinators at the facilities – everyone we could – to try to brainstorm how we are going to do this when both the teachers are sheltering in place and the students are on lockdown,” said Kris Davison, also a teacher at Sonoma County’s jails.

At the Alameda jail, principal Stables and an administrative assistant are admitted into the jail to bring the educational packets to students who are in the high school program. In some cases like in the San Francisco jails, the custody facility staff arranged for phone calls where individual students could meet with their teachers and for course materials to be dropped off for students, then picked up to be graded by teachers – an elaborately staged system to meet COVID-19 safety standards. The packets undergo a thorough content screening process and are given to the representative at the jail where they sit for three days (for safety issues) and are then handed over to the inmates. Each student receives a personal packet, tailored to his or her educational curriculum.

The response from the inmates has been powerful.

“One of my students sent me a letter in return that said, ‘you have no idea how much it meant to me to get your letter and to know someone cares,’” said Davison.

Five Keys offers secondary education at jails across California, in “normal times,” sending faculty to teach in-person classes. Unlike traditional high schools, classes are held year-round, because the life of inmates/students is so transitional. To accommodate short sentences, classes are offered year-round in intensive, one-month semesters, allowing students to earn credits more quickly.

About Five Keys Schools and Programs

Dedicated to getting people’s lives back on track, Five Keys Schools and Programs and its more than 550 dedicated employees serve more than 25,000 individuals each year throughout the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and nine counties throughout the state of California. Five Keys was founded in 2003 by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department as the first accredited charter high school in the nation to provide diploma programs for adults in county jails. Today its efforts have grown exponentially. The organization interrupts the cycles of homelessness, substance abuse, violence, literacy and incarceration through our 80 community learning centers, transitional housing shelters, career centers, and community-based workforce networks by investing in their humanity so that they can be self-determined to change their lives. Five Keys also hires people directly into our transitional employment positions for formerly incarcerated individuals and people currently or formerly experiencing homelessness. Five Keys has been the recipient of many awards including Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government Award, and California Charter School of the Year.


Mary Beth Sammons


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