Every June, in every town in every state throughout the country, high school graduations occur for many young adults. It’s a rite of passage. It’s what happens. A child starts on their educational path when they enter kindergarten, complete elementary school, advance to middle school, and then complete four years of high school. It all cumulates into a high school graduation ceremony with caps and gowns, pomp and circumstance, and family and friends. It’s a beautiful ritual.
But, what happens to those men and women whose educational journey was wrought with twists, turns, and obstacles, so that they never had the opportunity to earn their diploma? For the men and women who instead find themselves incarcerated? Fortunately, Five Keys Schools and Programs offers these men and women a second chance at finishing what they started.
Since July 2016, our school has offered high school classes to men and women incarcerated in San Bernardino County jails. Over the past two years, we have had four graduation ceremonies with over 30 graduates. The graduates wear caps and gowns, march down the aisle to Pomp and Circumstance, receive their diplomas, turn their tassels, and even celebrate with family after the ceremony. We try to emulate the high school experience they missed.
During the ceremonies, our graduates are often overwhelmed with gratitude for our staff’s commitment to each student’s success and for the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department’s support of our program. Over and over in the graduates’ speeches, they mention how thankful they are to our school and the department for the chance to show their families they have done something productive while incarcerated. Others mention, “I wish I had teachers like the Five Keys teachers when I was in high school.” Or, graduates exclaim, “I never thought I would graduate high school!”
In fact, at our last ceremony, one of our graduates never expected to graduate high school because she arrived without any high school credit. In 1979 she attended one semester of high school, but failed all her classes. When Five Keys came to her dorm in August 2016 to recruit students, she jumped at the chance. And, although her reading and math skills were remedial, she worked hard to improve her skills so she could eventually take high school courses and begin earning credits. After two years of perseverance and dedication, she earned the 180 credits needed to graduate. On the day of graduation, with her husband watching, she proudly accepted her diploma with tears in her eyes. This is just one, of many, untold success stories.
Although not all of our students will graduate due to circumstances beyond our control while they are our students, our goal is to plant a seed to ignite a passion for learning, so they can change their lives for the better.
The collaboration between Five Keys Charter School and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department enables justice-involved individuals an opportunity not only to meet educational goals, but also the potential to change, learn how to make better choices, and successfully reintegrate back into our communities.
Kelley Alley is the principal of Five Keys Charter School who was assigned to the school’s West Valley Detention Center when the program first started.
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