Prison Education Program Wins School of the Year Award: San Francisco's Five Keys Charter School Astoundingly Successful

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy sfgate.com

Teachers from charter schools around California had been waiting with anticipation to hear which of their schools would be awarded the 2014 Hart Vision Award for Charter School of the Year.  At the California Charter School Association's annual conference in San Jose on March 11, 2014, the winner was announced, and it was a good day for prison education.

The Hart Vision Award was created to honor schools that have made "significant contributions to the California Charter School Association's mission to increase student achievement by supporting and expanding California's quality charter public school movement."  The winner of the 2014 Award was the Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco.

What makes the Five Keys Charter School even more remarkable is that the school was established under the auspices of the San Francisco Sheriff's Department to provide education to inmates at the San Francisco jail.  Indeed, it was the first charter school in the United States to be established inside a jail.

The school's executive director, Steve Good, was understandably proud of both his administrators' and his incarcerated students' achievement, and expressed his hope that the award would bring more attention to the importance of education in prisons as a way of reducing recidivism, crime, and victimization.  As a number of studies in the field of correctional education, as reported at http://prisoneducation.com, have revealed, there is a direct correlation between employment and recidivism and educational levels and employment.  Prisoners who receive an education behind bars are able to obtain sustainable employment, and ex-offenders who are employed recidivate at a greatly reduced rate than those who hold no job upon release from custody.  California's prison system is creaking at the seams.  In February, federal judges gave the state two additional years to reduce its chronic and severe overcrowding.  California's state prisons are currently filled to 144% of capacity, a number comparable to that of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  As part of the solution, the state plans to spend $81 million over the next year on improving its rehabilitation programs.

Those improvements are certainly needed.  Sixty percent of inmates released from California prisons are back behind bars again within three years (the technical term for this is "recidivism").  The role of educational programs in correctional settings was amply demonstrated by a meta-analysis, which combined the results of many studies, and which was reported by the RAND Corporation in 2013.  Their report showed that participation in educational programs whilst incarcerated reduced inmates' likelihood of recidivating by 43%.  The need for more education in California's jails and prisons is not in dispute; 65% of the state's approximately 150,000 inmates have never earned a high school diploma.

Steve Good believes that education is a right, not a privilege, much as the Supreme Court alluded to in Brown v. Board of Education, which decried the racial inequalities found in many school systems, so many years ago.  If that moral argument is not enough to motivate decision makers, the financial implications certainly should be.  The Pew Research Center estimated that California could save $233 million each year with just a 10% cut in their recidivism rate.  According to http://prisonlawblog.com, this funding could be put to use fixing California's crumbling bridges, or even further reducing recidivism by bolstering existing prison education programs in state prisons and county jails.