Creating an Environment of Comfort

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By Jesse Duthrie

On a busy in street in downtown Bridgeport, the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport takes aim at reducing recidivism by offering it’s own GED program. In 2008 Career Resources was led by Liz Dupont-Diehl in applying for a Program Improvement Project (PIP) Grant through the State of Connecticut Education Department (SDE). Unlike other grants being proposed at the time, Liz applied for the grant under the condition that the GED program would be run specifically for formerly incarcerated citizens.

“The thinking was that he thinking was that the group dynamic would be helpful to learning – everyone having experienced the same challenges,” Liz Dupont-Diehl commented. “At the time we were and are the only SDE PIP adult education program in the community working solely with ex-offenders.”

GED completion has been statistically proven to reduce national recidivism rates. In a study conducted by Brown University and Princeton University, recidivism rates reduced more than five percent for men who received their GED’s in prison. Outside of prison, GED completion has also been shown to lower rates of recidivism.

Chartered with a program new to Connecticut’s education system, Charlie Rosenthal of Career Resources was tasked with being the teacher for the ex-offenders. Charlie molded his class based on his prior education experience as an alternative education teacher and his past history working with ex-inmates. Though never incarcerated, Charlie describes himself as “comfortable with this kind of population.” He adds, “Working in alternative educational career that goes back to the sixties, I’ve learned that you can’t take yourself too seriously.”

His classroom is a hybrid of a computer lab and a standard high school classroom. Tables are aligned in rows with two computers per table. An archaic map hangs on the wall, nearly out of sight, seeming ancient in the new technology era. A white board is positioned next to the rows of desks. A few small tables are scattered around the white board.

Some students sit at the computers working on programs I can only describe as “Rosetta-Stone-ish,” though there are numbers instead of foreign words, and the intensity of the student ranges from slow to enthused. Another student is sitting at a table with a large test booklet open. He scribbles math equations down, which are most likely algebra (which is required for the GED certificate). Another student is sitting at a desk with another student and their conversation is focused on things non-academic: football, cars, etc.

The shmorgishborg of student discipline is not accidental. Dan Bracchio, the CO-OP program director, informs me why Charlie has structured his classroom like this. “Not everyone in the class needs to be on ‘page 17’ at the same time. Students are able to progress at their own pace with those subjects that are more difficult for them without pressure. I think that traditional classroom settings have been part of the reason that our students have dropped out of high school.”

Instead of teaching a traditional, formulated class based upon dates of completion and structured material, Charlie tends to let the program flow according to each student. None of the men hold high school diplomas, and many of them don’t even possess fundamental math, reading, and writing skills.

It’s Charlie’s warm sociability that gives these men the ability to return to a classroom setting after incarceration. Charlie jokes around with the students; his grey beard and red cheeks are reminiscent of a jolly Santa Claus. But to Charlie, it’s more than just making friends and telling jokes. He’s creating an environment of comfort.

The level of comfort seems only to extend to Charlie. When Charlie asks them what they think of the program and how they like it, they purse their lips and say nothing. They are not the easiest to connect with immediately. It takes time, Charlie says, before they can trust a person in an educational setting.

“People don’t learn until they feel safe: physically and emotionally. My specialty is making my students feel comfortable so they can admit they have problems with their reading and math. They can be very defensive. Once they admit their weakness, then they can start to learn. I feel like I’m nurturing their brains and their souls.”

Charlie implements several ways of nurturance. In the warm weather, he likes to bring in hamburgers and hot dogs for barbeques. He also likes to conduct small exams on a six-week basis. The purpose of these exams is to show the progress the students are making in hopes they will continue to strive for the GED.

However, there is room for improvement in the program. Dan suggests that program could use more multi-media resources to teach the material in a more dynamic way. The class could also use more part time instructors; Charlie is the only teacher in the class.

“When I get sick,” Charlie says jokingly, “the class gets the day off!”

There is a significant amount of research for the completion of the GED during incarceration. Studies have shown recidivism rates go down over five to ten percent for men who’ve completed the GED program while incarcerated. On top of that, the younger the person is upon completing the GED while incarcerated the less likely their chance of recidivism.

What little research has been done about the completion of a GED program post-incarceration indicates that there is a decreased rate of recidivism. The majority of information that is known is told by personal accounts of former graduates who’ve gone on to be successful.

As Connecticut’s unemployment rate hovers around nine percent, the GED has become less effective in finding gainful employment. However, there are secondary options for GED graduates. Trade schools are an option. In order to enter a trade school a person needs to have a high school diploma or equivalent. There is also the route of college, particularly community college, where scholarships are available for low-income students.

Charlie has seen several of his students move on to community college and trade schools. He’s also seen students disappear from the class: presumably dropping the program or worse, incarcerated. He cannot control the paths of these men; he can only guide them towards a better future.

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