Distinguished Schools 01

CDCR classrooms incorporate technology innovations while also serving the needs of students with physical disabilities and medical conditions. CDCR file photo.

Prisons to share academic excellence in Distinguished Schools initiative

By Krissi Khokhobashvili
Deputy Chief, CDCR Office of External Affairs

Education is the gift that can never be taken away – once you learn something, it’s yours to keep.

That’s the message Shannon Swain sends to students every time she visits a prison. As Superintendent of the Office of Correctional Education (OCE) for CDCR, Swain and her team are committed to providing opportunities for academic growth during incarceration. In 2019, they’ll kick off a first-of-its-kind program to recognize correctional schools of excellence.

The Distinguished Schools (DS) initiative was created by OCE to recognize exemplary academic achievements within CDCR’s adult schools. The program is rooted in educational researcher Richard Dufour’s work on Professional Learning Communities, a nationally recognized model for achieving excellence in schools. A committee comprising OCE representatives, custodial staff, administrators and external stakeholders will conduct site visits to each applicant, evaluating the facility on nine areas acknowledged by federal and state leaders as essential elements of a great school:

• Mission
• Communication
• Climate and culture
• Professional learning and collaboration
• Implementation of curriculum
• Instructional practices
• Student support
• Achievement data
• Budgets Facilities

Distinguished Schools 02

The Distinguished Schools site visits will evaluate schools on the overall learning environment. CDCR file photo.

The process is designed to be collaborative, with applications completed by both the Principal and Warden at the institution. Relationships are important in every school system, but they are particularly vital in prison schools, where tight schedules, security concerns, and even weather can impact class. DS is in keeping with CDCR’s belief that every employee plays a role in rehabilitation, from officers, teachers and doctors to custodians and culinary staff who keep the prison running and incarcerated men and women safe, healthy and working toward better futures.

“I applaud OCE’s continuing efforts to offer a premier level of education at all of CDCR’s adult institutions,” said Jeff Macomber, Director (A), Division of Adult Institutions. “Providing a quality education to the inmate students in our facilities is a critical step in CDCR’s rehabilitation efforts. The Distinguished Schools initiative is a positive step in fulfilling CDCR’s mandate to prepare offenders for success upon release, as well as recognition of the continued dedication of our hard working teachers and other educational staff.”

“OCE and the Division of Rehabilitative Programs (DRP) want to celebrate outstanding education programs and practices to honor schools for advancing excellence in education,” Swain said. This process gives CDCR wardens, principals and other executive leaders an opportunity to shine a light on the outstanding programs they have built to help students succeed.”

Participation is voluntary, but CDCR leaders hope every school will rise to the challenge and apply

“I am proud of the OCE leadership team for creating a corrections-based distinguished school program,” said Brant Choate, DRP Director. “I challenge all wardens and school principals to make it their collective goal to receive this high honor.”

Below, Inside CDCR shares insights from Swain and OCE Deputy Superintendent Hillary Iserman regarding DS and how it fits into their vision for correctional education.

Q: What makes a school a Distinguished School?

Swain: We are looking for a school that is truly integrated and essential to the institution. We are looking for true collaboration between the school and custody staff. We want to see students actively engaged in learning.

Q: What will it mean for a school to earn this recognition?

Iserman: DS honors some of CDCRs most exemplary and inspiring schools. Schools selected will demonstrate significant gains in narrowing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students, demonstrate exemplary achievements in implementing state standards and state standards for professional leaders and educators through a collaborative school culture and climate supported by all stakeholders at the institution.

Swain: California is leading the nation with its innovative rehabilitative programming and educational programs in CDCR, a genuine rehabilitative revolution! To my knowledge, this Distinguished School program is the first ever for correctional schools. This is a terrific opportunity to build on the partnership between institutional schools and educators from mainstream county offices of education and districts, since external stakeholders will be on the evaluation team. We anticipate interest from media representatives, which will allow us to tell our story, that Correctional Education improves public safety. I want every teacher and staff member to realize the incredibly important role that they play in charting a path for success for our inmate students. I want them all to feel valued and appreciated and for the entire institution community to treasure their school, staff and students.

Q: Why is it important that this effort involve both educational and correctional staff?

Iserman: The success of a school is directly correlated to the collaborative efforts of every stakeholder in a prison setting, from the correctional officer who releases inmates for class, to the warehouse worker who delivers supplies to the school, to the counselor who encourages inmates to better themselves and ensure the right inmates are assigned to school, to the medical staff who schedule appointments outside of class hours, to the warden and executives who provide the vision for staff at their prisons to support education efforts.

Q: This is an opportunity for schools to show programs, educators, etc. who may be “hidden” from public view. What’s one thing about correctional education you wish more people knew?

Iserman: CDCR provides high-quality evidence-based education to over 50,000 incarcerated students. Each school is WASC accredited and all teachers are credentialed through the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. CDCR schools provide high-interest, interactive and meaningful educational opportunities, including computer-based learning to prepare them for college and career readiness, upon release into the community. In 2017, RAND found that correctional education programs substantially reduced an individual’s risk of being re-incarcerated and that such programs are cost effective – every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly $5 in re-incarceration costs over three years.

Distinguished Schools 04

Career Technical Education programs provide certifications in industries proven to provide stable careers.

Swain: I wish more people knew that our schools are comprehensive, accredited adult schools offering academic and CTE programs that go above and beyond industry standards, offering library and television services, physical education, and more. When I have brought some of our partners into the institutions, they often share how surprised they are at the quality of the curriculum and instruction. Every one of our teachers holds a valid teaching credential and our Career Technical Education teachers have complete workshops inside the institutions. When folks see our auto body and paint programs, the building maintenance and electrical shops, the plumbing and construction trades, the welding and machine shops, the computer coding programs – well, they tend to be surprised and delighted. When they see our academic teachers using smart boards, integrating technology into their lessons, and delivering active and engaging lessons – it is very gratifying to see the positive reactions.