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Graduation Day At Nation's First Charter School Behind Bars

New America Media, News Report, Rupa Dev

 This year’s graduation ceremony honoring inmates who received their high school diploma from Five Keys Charter School was so packed that loved ones and friends of the graduate found themselves literally spilling out of the auditorium at 850 Bryant San Francisco County Jail. 

“We’ve been labeled as criminals, inmates, and convicts, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be students, leaders, and teachers,” said Semaj Deshields, a graduate and student speaker at the ceremony. “Today is the day my fellow students and I bask in the victory of crossing an educational threshold.” 

At a time when many California charter schools are being criticized for failing to provide higher-quality education over traditional public school models, Five Keys Charter School opened two new charters in 2008 and is graduating more students than ever before. This year’s 110 graduates are slightly more than the total number of graduates from 2003-2007. 

“The school has become more organized, more professional, and much more students are graduating,” said Margo Perin, a creative writing and liberal arts teacher who has been with the school since it opened in 2003. 

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department’s Five Keys Charter School was started by Sheriff Michael Hennessey and currently serves 4000 students between the three schools. 

It is the nation's first charter school for adults inside a county jail. 

The program is rigorous; students attend school from 8 AM to 2:30 PM, followed by studying and coursework completion in the evening. Students must pass the CAHSEE exam to receive a high school diploma and complete a minimum requirement of 180 units for a certificate and diploma. 

For many students who haven’t set foot in a classroom for years, sitting through six hours of class isn’t easy. 

“I teach the subject students typically hate the most, but the type of dedication I see in my students is incredible,” said Tyson Amir, a math teacher. “They see school as an opportunity to make their lives better.” 

Students credit Five Keys teachers for creating a curriculum that resonates with inmates in ways their previous classrooms assignments did not. 

“The teachers really cared about us. If I didn’t understand something, my teachers took the time to explained things until it made sense,” said graduate Amanti Adkins, 21, who attended Five Key while incarcerated for three months this year. 

Adkins liked the daily writing exercises because the prompts “challenged his mind” and how he perceived the world. He also spoke highly of the parenting class. “I learned all about the different stages of child development and what it means to be a good parent,” said Adkins, who has a one-year-old son. 

For graduate Mohd Hanif Mohd Hafidz, Five Keys was an opportunity to make something productive out of his time in jail. He tutored students in class and asked teachers for additional coursework to push himself in academics. 

Forty loved ones of Hafidz waved signs and balloons at the graduation ceremony in support of him. “We’re very proud of him,” said his mother. “He shouldn’t be here; he was scapegoat for a robbery he didn’t commit,” she added. 

Student speaker Nichole Henderson said she was so nervous to speak she might faint but got through her speech with ease, announcing at the end that she was “28 months sober and now has a high school diploma.” 

Despite receiving inadequate funding from the state, Five Keys is thriving largely due to the school’s unique partnership program with a handful of Bay Area community-based organizations which include The Glide Foundation, Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics, the Asian Neighborhood Design. 
For example, while Five Keys doesn’t have the resources to offer case management or substance abuse counseling at the two new charter schools, organizations like Goodwill Enterprise and Walden House provide these services to students. Additionally, students who are released from jail have the opportunity to continue the curriculum and release their diploma through the Post Release Education Program (PREP). 

By operation under this expansive community-based model, the school can turn to partnering community organizations to help when budget cuts hit hard in the classrooms. 

For the upcoming year, Five Keys aims to ramp up the vocational training and job readiness portion of the school’s curriculum. 

“Getting a high school diploma when you’re 27 is great, but what you really need in today’s economy is a diploma plus job skills,” said executive director Steve Good. Both students and faculty said Good’s strong leadership has been instrumental to the school’s success.



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