- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

WASHINGTON, Pa. (AP) - Prison garb and a mortarboard might seem like an odd combination, but both state and federal mandates require jail inmates under age 21 who want to earn a high school diploma to be given the opportunity.

And no, as “Pomp and Circumstance” plays, you don’t have to scrutinize the ankles of graduates for shackles peeking out beneath their gowns.

Roberta DiLorenzo, superintendent of Washington School District which, due to Washington County jail standing within its borders, is responsible for educating inmates who want to earn a high school diploma, said of its jailed grads, “No, they don’t walk” in a commencement ceremony.

“People are aware of special ed students being in school until 21, but under 21, we’re required to serve them,” she continued. “Under both state and federal law, anyone under 21 is entitled to a free public education. We review their records, and we look at the practical possibility of getting a high school diploma. They age out at 21.”

Judith Klobucar, Washington County jail treatment supervisor, said she tracks newly incarcerated inmates who qualify for schooling and works with Washington Senior High School Principal Paul Kostelnik to oversee the program “so there’s no gap in service,” she said.

Last week, a single student from Washington School District who has been enrolled in a cyberschool program through the jail since April, was completing a science course and working on both English and mathematics under the supervision of teacher Chris Rocco, a substitute teacher employed by Washington School District.

Rocco works with his inmate-student, a senior, three days a week. The inmate, who declined to be identified by name, said he had hoped to “graduate June 10 with the rest of the kids” but he needs to complete additional studies.

In the past, “We have had as many as five or six inmates,” DiLorenzo said. “Even if there’s one person, the district has to go in there and get it done.”

She called the number of inmates without high school diplomas and under age 21 “not something you can predict. It’s getting harder and harder to find (teachers) who will go into the jail,” DiLorenzo said.

The student inmate from Washington School District, who consented to be photographed for this story, is likely to be among the last enrolled before a change takes place in educating those under age 21 at Washington County jail.

Last month, both the Washington County commissioners and Washington School Board voted to contribute to Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission to share the cost of a facilitator to educate incarcerated youth at a cost of $10,000 per year and connect inmates of any age with programs after their release to keep them from using drugs and alcohol. The aim is to reduce reincarceration.

The new staffer will also conduct drug and alcohol assessments in the jail and coordinate and deliver a public education program through a contract with Washington School District. General Educational Development courses are also to be offered as part of this program. The service will be provided at no cost to the taxpayer through the inmate welfare account and costs, not exceeding $23,000 per year, will be paid to WDAC.

Washington School District will bill the home districts, based on permanent residency, of jail inmates under age 21 who pursue a high school diploma for costs associated with their education. Being a high school dropout does not disqualify those under age 21 from trying anew for a diploma.

Rocco, as a visitor in the jail, must leave during the facility’s routine midday two-hour lockdowns, but the new correctional facility staffer will be permitted to remain at work during these periods.

“This person is an addition to the function my people perform here,” said Warden John Temas in an interview before his recent retirement.

The jail employs two counselors in addition to the treatment supervisor. “When that person is not providing educational services, he or she will be doing casework.” Continuing treatment and education go hand-in-hand because the goal of each is to keep inmates from returning to jail.

Greene County jail also offers inmates under the age of 21 the opportunity to earn a diploma.

“We have a GED program here that the Intermediate Unit I operates for us,” said Warden Harry D. Gillispie. A certified teacher employed by the IU teaches the course.

“If they come in and they want to earn a high school diploma, we give them the opportunity to take the classes,” Gillispie said. “The only problem is most of them are not here long enough to complete the classes.”

Two people are now enrolled in the program. “We have had people who graduated and got their GED here,” Gillispie said, adding one year, the jail had seven or eight inmates who successfully completed the course at the same time.

State corrections facilities in the area do not have high school diploma programs because they do not house school-age offenders, according to Susan McNaughton, spokeswoman for state Department of Corrections. Ten prisons outside the area have inmates who are 18, 19 or 20 years old.

She wrote in response to an email the State Correctional Institution at Greene, Franklin Township, or SCI-Fayette, LaBelle, “have many offenders that do not possess a high school diploma or GED credential.”

Pennsylvania also has what is known as the Adult Commonwealth Secondary Diploma granted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Department of Corrections staff met with the state Department of Education, came up with a proposed education plan and received approval to award this certificate.

“The credential is earned by using a combination of credits that were awarded while they were enrolled in a state-sanctioned high school, ninth grade or above, passing GED scores, if applicable, and completing classes while enrolled in our programs,” McNaughton continued. “The Department of Corrections contracts with the Corrections Education Records Center,” which contacts school districts to gain official copies of high school transcripts.

“An inmate is required to complete the pre-vocational and ‘Money Smart’ courses as part of the required credits. They must also complete a working résumé, which is included as part of their transcript package.” Credit is added for technology education offered to those who have not taken this kind of course in high school.

“The Department of Corrections has given 1,016 tests to date for 2016,” McNaughton wrote. “Of these, 828 were passing for a rate of 82 percent. We have issued 145 GED credentials.” The national pass rate for all test-takers is 76 percent and the national pass rate for offenders taking the test is almost as high: 74 percent.

SCI-Fayette has given 31 tests with 26 passing for an 84 percent pass rate. It has issues seven GED credentials. SCI Greene has given 38 tests with 32 passing for an 84 percent pass rate, and it has issued three GED credentials.

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Staff writer Bob Niedbala contributed to this report.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/28IsF77

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, https://www.observer-reporter.com

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