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Editorial: Jail charter school a good lesson in second chances

Beaming parents, airborne caps, black gowns and orange jumpsuits – the story and photos of the 2019 graduating class of Gordon Bernell Charter School that appeared in the June 7 Journal were uplifting enough to melt even the flintiest heart.

The Metropolitan Detention Center inmates who celebrated earning their high school diplomas June 6 ranged in age from 18 to 37, and social worker Leilani Maldonado was correct when she said each overcame massive obstacles to wear the cap and gown. The 15 recognized wouldn’t have their diplomas today had it not been for the unique and important mission of the Albuquerque Public Schools-authorized charter school that offers a high school education to adult learners. One of the school’s campuses is Downtown; the other is inside the jail. The story was a powerful reminder that a rap sheet isn’t the end-all in life.

Metropolitan Detention Center inmate Kevin Tom, right, and his father Herbert Vicente look over Tom’s diploma after the Gordon Bernell Charter School graduation ceremony June 6.

Unfortunately, it was also a reminder that Gordon Bernell Charter School’s future is in limbo. As part of a broad education bill, state legislators this spring approved an age cap that means students over the age of 22 will no longer be eligible to earn a high school diploma. The measure would have forced closure of Gordon Bernell and other schools that serve adult students had public outcry not prompted lawmakers to fund a stop-gap year.

The absolute pettiness – and penny-wise and pound-foolishness – of Senate Bill 1 is shown in its fiscal impact report: In 2017, there were 766 students over age 22 in public schools, accounting for around $6 million in funding. Our state has around 300,000 K-12 students and will spend more than $3 billion in the coming fiscal year educating them. Lawmakers who signed off on SB 1 grabbed a fraction of school funding and left students who didn’t graduate on time with nowhere to turn to turn their lives around.

Legislators also passed an unfunded measure that authorizes the creation of a diploma specifically for adults – which doesn’t change the fact that, after next year, Gordon Bernell’s funding disappears into a giant question mark.

How disheartening that elected officials would ignore the good done by this innovative school. Gordon Bernell directly serves a population that too often has been failed by traditional public education, a population the community desperately needs to get re-engaged with being productive, contributing members of society. To a drop-out with a record, a diploma is something to be proud of, something that shows the ability, hard work and dedication needed to pursue a better life.

To graduates Benjamin Hinojos, Charles Jackson, Estevan Jaramillo, Isaac Lamoreaux, Daniel Lucero, Robert Szentes, Kevin Tom, Jerome Trujillo, Richard Zubia, Robert Cass, Martin Garcia, John Ornelas, Ginger Sharpe, Isaiah Vasquez and Jesus M. Vidal-Ruiz: We wish you the very best of luck.

To legislators: Read these names and consider the value of a second chance.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.