Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
While many inmates in state prisons are required to participate in educational programs, the notion of continuing their education often becomes a distant thought after they are released.
“It’s partly the overwhelming nature of reentry, and life being what it is, they often have priorities like survival and reestablishing family that can get in the way,” said Beth Dorado, director of Gordon Bernell Charter School in Albuquerque.
“But I also think that there is a disconnect in the transitional services that give people a place to move forward,” such as the limited number of transitional housing available to them and the difficulty of getting connected to a behavioral health provider, she said.
One transitional option is Gordon Bernell, an Albuquerque Public Schools charter school with three campuses. The campus inside the Metropolitan Detention Center and a second on north Fourth Street offer a high school program and an adult education program, while a third campus at the Albuquerque Job Corps only offers the high school program.
The high school program, for men and women ages 18 to 21, is funded by the state Public Education Department and allows participants to complete the requirements of a regular high school in New Mexico.
“So they’re earning credits, and taking assessments, and the hope is that they will earn a high school diploma,” Dorado said.
The adult education program, for people age 22 and older, is funded by the state Higher Education Department and supports a variety of initiatives, including “helping students obtain their GED or HiSET certifications, or engage in some career pathway work to prepare them for jobs,” Dorado said.
“We’ve always had a focus on working with students who are currently or have recently been incarcerated, and our population has always skewed towards older students,” she said.
Gordon Bernell is unique in that it is the only educational institution in the state, outside of the Department of Corrections’ own education component, that deals almost exclusively with justice-involved individuals.
However, Amber Gallup Rodriguez, HED’s adult education division director, said that of 26 HED-funded adult education programs around the state, seven use a portion of their money to serve some institutionalized individuals.
The school program inside MDC does not require participation as is the case with many state prison inmates.
“Our students sign up voluntarily, and we have a process to help transition them to our school on Fourth Street,” Dorado said.
About 80% of the Gordon Bernell students at the Fourth Street campus come from MDC. The remaining 20% come from the surrounding community because they prefer the school’s “flexible model,” Dorado said.
There is also an increasing number of students who had been taking classes while at MDC and were later transferred to a state Department of Corrections facility. “After they’ve been released, a number of them do come back to us.”
Dorado said she would like to expand the relationship with the Department of Corrections, and with the department’s Probation and Parole division, so that inmates leaving a prison are referred to Gordon Bernell, where they can continue their education as well as have access to some career preparation.
Founded in 2008, the Gordon Bernell Charter School began with one campus inside the jail and another located in Downtown Albuquerque. The program grew quickly and expanded to nine locations, including the Sandoval County Jail, and recovery facilities for men and women operated by state Probation and Parole services, Dorado said.
In 2018 the state Legislature rewrote the eligibility definition for public education funding, cutting students off after age 21, Dorado said. “That was most of our population. Our mean age student was 35, so about two thirds of our students no longer qualified to fit in that category of who was eligible to earn a diploma because they were too old.”
Eventually, the Gordon Bernell School was able to get funding for older students through the state Higher Education Department and local grants. Now, those in the adult education program can pursue certifications through the GED (General Educational Development) or HiSET (High School Equivalency Test), Dorado said.
Currently, the school serves from 1,000 to 1,500 students throughout the year, about 300 at any given time. About 200 are in the program funded by $2.2 million from PED; about 100 students are in the program funded by $254,000 from HED, with an additional $100,000 in local grants.
“I wouldn’t say our HED budget covers the need, but it definitely provides what we need to launch the program and we are grateful for it and the relationship that continues to build,” Dorado said. “As we strengthen the program and show results, we’ve been assured by HED that the program can and will grow.”
‘Measurable skills gains’
Measuring the success of the students in the high school program can be gauged through literacy and basic math proficiency scores and by graduation results, Dorado said.
The three campuses of the school are collectively averaging about 60 graduates a year with either a diploma or a high school equivalency certification, she said.
In the adult program, “we’re also looking for those measurable skills gains, but we’re also looking for gains in job and life skills, which are a little harder to measure but equally as important,” she said.
Looking at thousands of Gordon Bernell student test scores from 2015 on, Dorado said the average student enters the school at about the sixth grade level, which is higher than literacy levels at prisons nationwide, where according to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 70% of inmates can not read above a fourth grade level.
This may be because most of the Gordon Bernell students at or from the Metropolitan Detention Center are more motivated and voluntarily participate in education programs.
“Individuals with the lowest literacy levels are often the most hesitant to participate,” Dorado said.
Further, students who were consistently enrolled for at least four months at the school improved by at least one grade level in literacy.
“Overwhelmingly, the thing I hear most from our students is regret that they didn’t finish school,” she said. “They realize they won’t be able to change their lives and get the jobs they’re interested in until they get an education. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so gratifying to work with this population, because they really are invested in doing it different this time around.
“They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.”