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Not a typical graduation

PATRICK J. CROWLEY, Reformer Staff

Thursday, March 29 2007

SPRINGFIELD -- The visiting room at Southern State Correctional Facility was a bit more colorful on Wednesday. Its walls were decorated with bright colored paper, banners reading "congratulations" and blue and yellow streamers winding across the room.

Classical music played from a small stereo at the back of the room.

A podium sat in front of rows of plastic folding chairs and round, colored paper-covered tables waited at the other side of the room.

A large cake was eventually wheeled into the room as plainclothes staff and families mingled with inmates dressed in the standard navy blue garb.

Around 2 p.m., a familiar tune -- "Pomp and Circumstance" -- began to play as five young men in bright blue caps and gowns (worn over the prison garb) casually walked to their seats in the front row.

Sean Bailey, Norman Corliss, Scott Hollis, Aaron Sears and Ryan Weeks, within 30 minutes, received their high school diplomas from Community High School of Vermont.

Weeks, a Brattleboro native, was the only graduate who refused to be photographed and interviewed.

All men are inmates at the Springfield prison, but on Wednesday they were students, and they were as proud as ever.

"I feel better," said Corliss, a 21-year-old graduate from Randolph. He said now he hopes he can get a better job once on the outside.

"It's a big weight lifted off my shoulders," said Bailey. "I want to go to college for sure."

Bailey started completing his education last January when he arrived at the prison. While he was doing the work to get his diploma (not a G.E.D.), his fiancé gave birth to his daughter, who is now 9 months old.

Bailey, with the diploma, seemed to have a renewed confidence. Seated with fellow inmates, he spoke of his daughter affectionately and looked forward to the day he can be with her full-time and work toward getting into college.

The Springfield campus of Community High School is now fully accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, according to Stephan LaTulippe, who is the chief of corrections education for the state.

It is an independent school operating within the corrections system across the state. Since 1998, the Community high school system has worked to help those within the corrections system complete their high school education.

In 2006, the high school awarded 135 diplomas across the state.

According to a Community High School press release, more than 95 percent of students are under 22 and are high school dropouts. In addition, 45 percent have prior histories in special education.

Hollis was one such dropout. He left high school at 16 and later received his G.E.D.

"If I was not here, I probably would have never got my diploma," he said.

In Vermont, all those under 22 in the prison without a high school diploma are required to work toward getting their diploma. That includes being in class 15 hours a week.

For those in charge, the program is about getting those young people back on track and switching on their motivation.

"Once they find that perseverance, they take off," said La-Tulippe.

He also said that those young prisoners have to recognize the opportunity to make an important decision in their lives to turn around after a bad decision.

"Failure sometimes can be termed as postponed success," he said just before handing out the diplomas.

Prison superintendent Kevin Ashburn said since the prison opened 31/2 years ago, there have been five graduations. The class size, he said, is usually around five people.

Each student comes into the program, he said, at a different level. The students are tested and their records are examined to see what work needs to be done to finish their diploma.

Ashburn said he can see the difference once those people get into the program. In their unit, they'll take to reading much more. They're attentive. They're studious.

"They mature and open up to thoughts and ideas," said Ashburn.

Ashburn also praised the work of teachers and staff.

Six teachers work in subjects like American history, math, science, language arts, art and special education. They have a library, a computer lab and classrooms to work in.

Tod Lessard, who works as an art, science and special education teacher, said Wednesday's ceremony was the first graduation he's seen since he started working in Springfield.

"It's great to see all the family members that show up," he said.

In a room full of happy graduates and families, Lessard said the high school helps to cheer up some of the students.

"When they come down to the school, over time they lighten up," he said.

Dallas Sears, the proud mother of graduate Aaron Sears, also thanked the staff.

"These teachers really made a difference," she said. "They didn't give up."