Expanded partnership to bring literacy to inmates


October 17th, 2012

Omaha, NE- An expanded partnership welcomed Douglas County inmates this week to help bring them to functional literacy as well as put them on the path to further education.

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Last Friday, teacher Jean McBride prepared papers and lesson plans for her new students scheduled to attend her newest class starting this Monday.

“If I walk into a fast food restaurant ten years from now and I see one of my students, I will take that as a personal failure,” she said.

Illiteracy affects 60 to 70 percent of the inmate population. That number skyrockets in the juvenile system. (Photo courtesy DCDC)

“I really want to see our students functioning at a higher level in society.”

McBride has a reserved enthusiasm. As a teacher within the Douglas County Department of Corrections, McBride has seen redemption along with heartbreak among her students.

But in a recent expanded partnership with the Midlands Literacy Center, teachers like McBride along with volunteers hope to broaden the spectrum of success by tackling the roadblock of illiteracy that plagues a majority of inmates.

Mike Myers is the Community Corrections Coordinator for the DCDC. He said while they’ve graduated many inmates through their GED program, nearly 350 in the last five years, there is still a population left behind.

“For people who’ve already been in the criminal justice system who already have a criminal record if they achieve a GED they are less likely to re-offend in the future,” he said.

“We’ve noted for some time, that there are people that come into our custody who function at a low enough literacy level, math level, etc., that they really don’t fit that well into our GED program. They need just some more basic work.”

The new partnership with the Literacy Center is a kind of pre-GED program. Courses will cover not just reading and writing; but math, science and history. Currently, most inmates wouldn’t be able to keep up with a traditional GED program.

Between 60 to 70 percent of inmates behind bars nationally are functionally illiterate: reading below a fourth grade reading level.

According to the Department of Education that number skyrockets in the juvenile system, nearly 85 percent of adolescent offenders are considered illiterate and most attend school less than half-time.

And illiteracy, according to the U.S. Department of Justice is “welded” to violence, delinquency and crime.

The Midlands Literacy Center will assist inmates in learning to read and write. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Two-thirds of students not proficient in reading by the end of fourth grade are likely to find themselves in jail or in poverty.

“Learning is a function of intrinsic motivation, ten percent teacher 90 percent what students do,” McBride said.

“And for that reason, that’s my first and greatest challenge is to spark interest to learn, curiosity and hopefully they can pick a career field.”

McBride is steadfast that her students, despite their backgrounds can lead successful lives outside of jail. The educating of inmates, she said, levels the playing field once they are released.

She said her program will be “varied” and “rigorous” focusing not just on reading and writing, but math, science and history hoping a broad curriculum will stir something within students.

32-year-old Darrien McBride is an example of Jean’s success stories. McBride, no relation to Jean, currently attends classes at the DCDC and recently received his GED.

“I was exhausted. Living that lifestyle, I had zero piece of mind, unable to really progress as a mature adult. Also drug abuse going on every day. I was ready to change, but I didn’t know how. And this really gave me the opportunity and showed me how to change,” he said.

Darrien dropped out of high school and turned to drugs and crime. But once inside the Department of Corrections, McBride said he was inspired to pursue a different lifestyle. McBride was not considered illiterate but said he did need a little “brushing up” during his time at the GED program.

His GED seems only a small stepping stone in McBride’s vision of his future outside the Department of Corrections. And looking at McBride you can understand why. He beams with confidence.

“I feel like I’ve had so much potential that was kind of lapsed by the other things going on in my life, so, this program in general has helped correct a lot of errors in my thinking, and going to all these classes with open mindedness and the need and readiness to change,” he said.

McBride said he stresses to other students about the importance and possibility of change and education.

McBride plans to help tutor the new literacy students like he currently does with other classmates.

While he hopes to pursue a degree in Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning services once he’s out, he has his eye on counseling professionally.

“And it’s rewarding to me. I feel, I’m helping, I tutor, I tutor all week long with the other students and it’s really rewarding,” he said. “That’s a good word, it’s rewarding.”

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