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Jim Kenyon: Former Inmates Find a Teaching Moment Testifying in Statehouse

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 3/28/2017 11:09:15 PM
Modified: 3/28/2017 11:09:18 PM

When Earle Rogers Jr. landed in prison in 2007, he tested at a second-grade reading level.

In a way, that’s not all that surprising. Nationally, about 75 percent of state prison inmates have not finished high school, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Except Rogers didn’t fall into that group. He had a high school diploma. How could that be?

Rogers, who grew up in a corner of Vermont near the Canadian border, was labeled a “special needs” pupil with learning disabilities in elementary school. After that, “I just kind of got passed through one grade to the next,” he told me.

Last week, when he testified before the House Education Committee, Rogers reminded Vermont lawmakers that whether they have a high school diploma or not, “a lot of people in prison are undereducated.”

Rogers and two other former inmates were in Montpelier to talk about Community High School of Vermont. The school operates in the state’s seven prisons and at eight probation and parole offices. Classes range from architecture to personal finance.

The hope was that hearing from former inmates might persuade some key lawmakers that supporting the school was in the state’s best interest — even in a tight budget year. The school’s $3.3 million annual budget, which includes about $225,000 in federal money, accounts for less than 2 percent of the overall corrections budget.

Andrew Gonyea, a high school dropout who served three years for burglary and assault, credited the school with turning his life around. He now helps run a nonprofit organization, Vermont Foundation of Recovery, that provides housing and mentoring to recovering alcoholics and drug abusers.

Community High School teachers “didn’t ask what my crime was,” he told lawmakers. “It never got brought up. They treated me like a student, not just a guy in jail.”

After the hearing, I caught up with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. A former state senator, he was familiar with Community High School’s struggle to gain acceptance — and sufficient funding — inside the Statehouse.

“It’s been on the chopping block for years,” Zuckerman said. “It’s very shortsighted. Most people who are locked up, eventually get out. Why not give them the tools they need to lead productive lives?”

Good question.

In recent years, state budget cuts have reduced the school’s staff from 51 to 37 employees. Along with legislators, the Department of Corrections hasn’t made the school much of a priority. DOC officials are so concerned with maintaining order in the state’s prisons that it often forgets — or ignores — the rehabilitative aspect of incarceration.

Inmates don’t have a lot of advocates in Montpelier. It’s simpler, although not cheaper, to spend $62,000 a year to keep a guy behind bars than to invest in educational programs that might not always pay off.

Last year, I wrote about DOC shutting down the welding shop at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport as a security precaution. Instead of learning by doing, inmates mostly read textbooks and watch videotapes about welding.

Which brings me back to Rogers.

Even before finishing high school in 2000, Rogers was already doing a lot of “drinkin’ and druggin’,” he told lawmakers. “I figured it would help me fit in, being a special education kid.”

Rogers wound up an alcoholic. After his third conviction for driving under the influence, including one that resulted in serious bodily injury to another person, Rogers was sentenced to seven to 20 years.

Since he was over age 22 and already had a high school degree, Rogers wasn’t required by state law to enroll at Community High School. But after a few months of sitting around his cell, he took the initiative to find out what the school had to offer.

After assessing his basic skills, the school provided one-on-one tutoring to bolster his reading and writing. He enrolled in math classes, as well.

Later he entered the welding program — when it still offered the equipment for hands-on training. He mentioned to his teachers that he’d like to make welding a career.

The staff helped him with student loan applications to a welding school in South Burlington. The six-month program, which he started two weeks after his release in 2014, cost $23,000. “I’m still paying, but it’s the best money I’ve ever spent,” he said.

Last year, Rogers earned $55,000. He’d just finished his income tax return and “had to pay in,” he said, drawing laughter from legislators around the table. “I guess that’s a good thing. I’ve never made enough before.”

Rogers, 35, and his wife are expecting their first child this spring. On Monday, they went house hunting.

“I know it takes money to teach an inmate, but it comes back,” Rogers told the committee. “It’s worth it.”

Bill Storz, who has taught at Community High School for more than a decade, joined the former inmates at the committee hearing. “I have to give them a lot of credit for just walking into that room,” he said.

Laird Stanard, who was 17 when he shot and killed his mother and narrowly missed his father at their West Windsor home in 1999, was the third former inmate to testify. Stanard, who was released last year, is now a manager at a Burlington restaurant.

After the hearing, the Education Committee recommended keeping the school’s budget at its current $3.1 million. Storz said he’d heard the “students’ testimony was decisive in our holding our own.”

Notice how Storz referred to the three men. He called them students.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com




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