Story by Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Photos by Ike Dodson and Mike Sicilia, DJJ Deputy Press Secretary
About an hour after teaching his fellow graduates of Johanna Boss High School in Stockton the methodology of a “schoolboy knot,” sharply-dressed Valedictorian Ethan Ragan stepped to the lectern inside the OH Close Youth Correctional Facility auditorium, straightened his own tie, and shared even greater insight for success.
“Although we have made some mistakes in our past, and have been through some struggles, we have turned a truly negative situation into a positive one by graduating here before you,” he said. “We know that we are not defined by our past, but by our present, and the decisions we make from here on will determine who we truly are.”
Ragan is one of 19 Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Youth from OHC in the graduating Class of 2019 at Johanna Boss. Fifteen youth received their high school diploma and another four picked up their General Education Development (GED) certificate. Most of the cohort enjoyed a special ceremony with family and friends in the OHC auditorium on June 7.
The graduates were prepped for the ceremony by peers, DJJ staff and foster grandparents in the OHC library, and listened intently to guest speakers ―like DJJ Director Chuck Supple, DJJ Superintendent of Education Troy Fennel, CDCR Undersecretary of Operations Kathleen Allison and keynote speaker/software engineer Jason Jones.
After proudly receiving their diplomas, youth joined attending family in OHC visiting for cake, lemonade, hugs and photos.
Strengthening those family bonds is crucial, and an education helps graduating youth become an asset to the community upon release.
Numerous studies show that, in general, the more education received, the less likely an individual is to return to prison. According to the RAND Corporation, incarcerated people who participate in correctional educational programs are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend.
It’s why DJJ and its four facilities are invested in operating an accredited Local Education Agency with the same high school curriculum that youth would receive in their local communities.
“As it always is with educators and treatment specialists, we look forward to this day each year when we get to recognize and celebrate this major accomplishment and springboard to a bright future,” OHC Principal Susan Harrower said during the ceremony.
Fennel also emphasized the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditations that give DJJ diplomas recognition for maintaining academic standards.
“Today you are going to be earning a diploma, and on that diploma it says ‘Johanna Boss High School,’”
Fennel explained. “It carries the full weight of any high school diploma here in the state of California.
“There is no mention of your diploma being related to a correctional facility whatsoever and we have designed that specifically so your high school diploma shows a high school record and nothing more.”
Supple, a former Reentry Coordinator at OHC, regaled the graduates with a few of his favorite success stories of former DJJ youth. The department’s longtime champion of the “reentry begins at intake” outlook has become an encyclopedia of rehabilitated youth.
He shared the story of a former OHC youth who built a path to the Fresno Conservation Corps and will graduate as its student body president. Supple also boasted of an OHC alum who found artistry in trade skills and spoke of a youth who became a DJJ firefighter at Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp and now works as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter.
Supple challenged the youth to build upon an education and create their unique narrative.
“I see it in each one of your eyes that you can do that,” Supple said. “The only thing that I would ask, is that I want you to come back and help others be a success as well, because you are part of this community.”
Allison gave special recognition to the family and staff in beaming attendance.
“All the love in this room is evidence that you guys are going to be successful upon release,” she said. “Take advantage of this opportunity and your time here.
“This is one tool in your toolbox for your future success. You don’t have to let what got you here define you. You guys all get a second chance.”
The event’s final speaker, Jones, was himself formerly incarcerated. Few can speak to rallying to success like the man who graduated from The Last Mile computer coding program at San Quentin and now thrives as a software engineer and Lead Virtual Instructor. Jones travels the country to teach system-impacted adults and youth more than just coding ― the virtue of systemic change.
“My advice to you all is to allow your curiosity to drive your creativity, and allow your dreams to guide your future,” Jones said. “I want to congratulate you guys here today and remind you that this day is special, not only because you are graduating high school, but because you are starting to control the narrative.”