The first college course I ever enrolled in was an English course. I took it because it was a logical choice. After all, every course in college requires some level of reading comprehension. I thought that the course would be challenging because it was a college course, but I didn’t think that there would be areas of which I was unfamiliar. I was wrong.
As my study guide and textbook arrived, I jumped right on in. At once I was pushing through essays and reading assignments. Writing has always come easy to me, so I thought I was made. Then along came a citation issue.
The issue was that I didn’t know how to cite sources, effectively paraphrase, or even productively research. I just never had to do this in high school. It certainly didn’t help that I went to prison when I was a senior in high school. Regardless, I didn’t graduate from high school and, thus, had obviously missed several of the important lessons. Instead of graduating before I went to prison, I earned a GED in prison.*1
It took a lot of hard work and more than a little coffee, but I eventually mastered the not so subtle art of source research, utilization, and citation. Even though everything worked out well in the end, this experience showed me a vital truth. This being that even though I had earned a GED — the official high school diploma equivalent — I had not finished high school. As such, I was not adequately prepared for college. I believe this to be the case with the vast majority of GED-holders in prison. Earning a GED is simply not the same experience as attending and graduating from a traditional high school.
With these limitations in mind, each incarcerated student who desires to enroll in college-level courses should first enroll in a foundational program of study. While high school is traditionally where this foundation is formed, several colleges do offer courses which are designed to strengthen areas of existing weakness. It is much better for them to bolster any areas which require improvement than to try to wing it and find that they can’t complete the work.
Louisiana State University [Hyperlink to school’s Distance Learning page] is one such school. They offer several courses below the college-level which are designed to prepare a student for college-level studies. Others schools also offer developmental courses via correspondence, although these aren’t necessarily offered for each subject area. With this realization in mind, it is up to us — correctional educators — to prepare our students for the next step on their educational path. This means being attentive to our students’ academic trouble spots so that we can help them when the need arises.
If you know that a particular student is interested in taking the next academic step, yet they are not proficient in English, mathematics, or another subject area, encourage the student to participate in additional college preparatory tutoring. If this is not a plausible option, perhaps you could pass along a few books which could help them prepare for college. You could even find another incarcerated student, who is currently enrolled in college, to help them along and on their scholastic way.
We as prison educators need to do what we can to send our students on to the next level of studies in the most secure fashion possible. We need to pay attention and help our students even when they don’t know they need the help. This is our job and our duty as educators. If not, we are setting them up for failure. And if failure is what results, it is our own fault, too.
*1-I have since enrolled in, and graduated from, a correspondence high school program. This was separate and in addition to earning my GED.