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Instructing inmates a challenging, rewarding experience

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2003

Research shows rapport with the students is the key to success.

Wayne Young, principal at Spring Creek School, has faith in the high school program offered within the prison walls. Still, he credits the three teachers on his staff for the program's success.

Spring Creek isn't an easy place to live or teach.

It's an atmosphere that takes a special kind of teacher.

Teachers at Spring Creek have to be individuals willing to walk through metal detectors, security doors and a gym full of general population inmates every day. They have to be people willing to work in an environment that could, potentially, be dangerous. They have to be people who can teach with tremendous flexibility. Most importantly, they have to be people who can reach out and gain the attention of their students.

"If I didn't have a strong team, it could be a problem," he said.

The teachers on the educational team at Spring Creek School don't end up there by chance. They are people with experience dealing with at-risk youth and, more importantly, with a real desire to be there.

Mary Alice Allman spent 25 years in education in the Lower 48, working primarily with at-risk youth. After retiring and leaving Florida, she heard about the job at Spring Creek and decided to put retirement on hold after all.

"It just fit, and the timing was right," she said.

Allman teaches science, computer skills, vocational education and health to the young inmates at Spring Creek. It's a challenge, she said.

"It's not a regular class," she said. "I teach chemistry, and I can't bring chemicals. I can't bring dissecting tools."

In addition, the open atmosphere within the mod, as well as the ever-changing prison population, creates a chaotic teaching environment.

"We do have challenges," she said. "There are always kids coming and going."

That means teachers have to meet the students where they are, adapt to their backgrounds and work fast, she said. They also have to take into account the students' unique personalities.

"You don't back them into a wall," she said. "You make them want to learn."

Challenges aside, though, Allman said she loves her job.

"From the day we got here, we've enjoyed it," she said. "(The guys) are like regular high school students: Some want to learn, some don't.

"The best part is that we've had some kids that really want to learn. You can tell they haven't had the background and see they're trying to make up lost time.

"It's nice to see significant gains."

Gary Blount, who teaches math, reading and physics at the school, has had a similar experience. Also from Florida, Blount spent the last 20 years of his career in education working in administration. But after retiring and hearing about the job at Spring Creek, he said he wanted to get back to working with students.

"(I like) getting back and remembering what I like about education: working directly with students," he said. "It's fun to get back to teaching instead of, well, having the worries that Mr. Young has."

 

"Sometimes I forget I'm in a prison, (the students) are so much like normal high school kids," said teacher Gary Blount.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Blount, too, said there are challenges to working at Spring Creek. One is the need for flexibility.

"Most (of the students) have shown they can't really function in a regular high school, so we have to adapt," he said.

But, he said, the challenges seem to fade away after time.

"Sometimes I forget I'm in a prison, (the students) are so much like normal high school kids," he said. "I had a high school of 2,000 in Florida, and I see the same behavior in class."

Blount, who also volunteers his Saturdays to tutor inmates who are pursuing higher education, said over time he's developed a relationship with the young men.

"Some of my former students want to continue learning," he said. "It's rewarding."

And, while attitudes of teenage inmates can be off-putting at first, Blount said he's come to take it in stride.

"They still rag on you, but you can tell it's kidding," he said.

Chris Lau, who teaches humanities subjects ranging from language arts to social studies to art, also said a light attitude is crucial to teaching in such an atmosphere.

"You've got to have a sense of humor," he said.

 

"The kids, for the most part, are fun to work with," said Chris Lau. "Most have turned the corner and want to make something of themselves. They want to learn."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Lau is the youngest teacher at the school but has been on the educational team the longest. Prior to coming to Spring Creek, he taught in Alaska Bush communities.

"What I started here for was a great opportunity to work with at-risk kids," he said.

He admitted it's a unique atmosphere.

"You don't have a classroom. It is very loud. We interfere with each others' classes," he said. "It's pretty amazing (the students) can function, but they thrive."

Despite the challenges, though, Lau said he sees a lot of benefits to working at the school.

"There are none of the distractions (of a normal school). We don't have to compete," he said. "We have a lot more resources in the curriculum because we have access to unique funds."

And, he said, the students themselves are a benefit.

"The kids, for the most part, are fun to work with. Most have turned the corner and want to make something of themselves. They want to learn."



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