School Beat: SF Sheriff’s Department Five Keys Charter School

by Steve Good on March 12, 2009

On January 28, 2009, thirty-nine year old Anastacia Casperson accomplished something she never felt was possible: the mother of six graduated from high school with at 3.69 GPA for her junior and senior years. Delivering her graduation speech to an audience of 350 friends and family members of the Five Keys Charter School graduates, Anastacia described a life of repeated abuse, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and incarceration.

She also described that while in jail, she become sober, enrolled in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Five Keys Charter School and discovered that she was intelligent and capable of passing both sections of the California High School Exit Exam as well as completing the remaining sixty-six required units she needed to earn her diploma, and restart her life.

For Anastacia and most other Five Keys students, Five Keys represents the first time in their lives that they can attend school without the influence of violence, drugs or other distracting factors that cause so many of our city’s youth to drop out of school. Today, Anastacia is working full-time, looking forward to community college and reuniting with her children.

In an effort to both increase educational options that focus on restorative justice and to offer a path for obtaining a high school diploma, Sheriff Michael Hennessey founded Five Keys Charter School, the first charter high school for adults in the nation that operates inside a county jail. Sponsored by the San Francisco Unified School District in May of 2003, Five Keys opened its doors in September 2003 to over 200 inmates in the San Francisco County Jail.

Since then, Five Keys has been an innovator in providing educational opportunities for offenders to turn their lives around — giving hope to many as incarceration rates in California and around the country skyrocket.

Five Keys offers traditionally underserved students the opportunity to restart their education, gain job skills, earn a high school diploma and pursue goals of post-secondary education, employment and positive re-entry into the community.

In 2008, Five Keys applied for and received two new charters from the San Francisco Unified School District. With the addition of Five Keys Adult School and Five Keys Independence High, the schools are reaching a larger percentage of the incarcerated population as well as expanding post-release education options by partnering with respected community-based organizations such as Walden House, Goodwill, Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, Glide Foundation, and many others. This year, the three schools will serve over 4,000 students with an average of 330 students attending daily.

In addition to a traditional high school curriculum, class offerings include the Goodwill Truck Driving Academy and Career Preparation, Microsoft Digital Literacy, Reading / Math Lab, Nextcourse’s Health and Culinary Training, and Restorative Justice (a required course that raises awareness of the impacts of crime on victims and the community). To help break a cycle of incarceration, Five Keys is offering a new parenting class in partnership with Community Works which will allow incarcerated mothers the chance to work with their children on homework under the guidance of a licensed instructor.

The San Francisco jails house primarily individuals awaiting trial, so their stays in jail may be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to a year or more. To accommodate this, classes are offered year-round on intensive, one-month “semesters”, allowing students to earn credits more quickly. A school re-entry coordinator works with students approaching release to connect with needed services in the community, including Five Keys Adult School’s post-release sites at Oak Grove & Bryant and a site at Treasure Island.

Five Keys Adult School’s Oak Grove site serves as an important bridge for students (both men and women) to continue their education upon release. Students at Oak Grove may also be referred from cooperating agencies including Back on Track (a diversion program for drug offenders), the Sheriff’s Department’s Home Detention Program, and through the school’s own recruiting efforts in the community.

At Treasure Island the school has a partnership with clients enrolled at Walden House and Haight Ashbury Free Clinics programs. The education programs at both the Treasure Island and Oak Grove sites are tailored to the individual needs of each student. Students make an education plan that includes either earning a GED or a high school diploma. They might work on independent study courses, attend site-based classes, participate in the Nextcourse Culinary Program or practice for the GED exam. They participate in service-learning projects and attend workshops offered by other community-based organizations working on re-entry issues such as housing and employment.

Five Keys Independence High provides the school with a unique opportunity to expand our access in the jails and reach further into the post-release community by serving incarcerated students who do not have access to classroom based instruction; students who want to accelerate credit attainment; and, working students and those enrolled in Work Force Development programs like Booker T. Washington’s computer training or Asian Neighborhood Design.

In this program, students meet with a teacher on a weekly basis as they complete independent study courses needed to earn a high school diploma. The program is structured in accordance with California Department of Education requirements for Independent Study programs. Our partnerships allow the school to structure programs that support and complement the goals of partner organizations and give our students a better chance of long-term success.

In California it cost $45,000 to house an inmate for one year, versus $7,000 to educate that person for one year. Studies show that providing educational opportunities to inmates creates safer jails and reduces the likelihood of being rearrested. And in cases like Anastacia’s, it also gives six children their mother back, and the hope that perhaps they will stay in school with Anastasia’s support.

Steve Good is the Executive Director of the SF Sheriff’s Departments Five Keys Charter Schools and the former Principal of Creative Arts Charter School. Prior to Steve’s work with charter schools, he worked as the Executive Director of Nobel Learning Communities SF Bay Area operations. For more information on Five Keys Charter School, visit: www.fivekeyscharter.org

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