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Vermont's Largest School

Susan Notes: Of course it is not "good news" that these youth are incarcerated, but it is Great News that their educational needs are neither forgotten nor abandoned.

It's surprising to learn that Vermont's largest high school isn't located on Main Street in any town or village. Instead, more than 4,100 students take classes through the prison system -- making that the largest high school in the state.

It's called the Community High School of Vermont, and its classrooms are located in 17 communities throughout the state, including all the prisons and the work camp in St. Johnsbury.

Better still, this schooling is mandatory for inmates age 22 and younger, voluntary for any inmate over that age, and even open to dropouts not incarcerated in one of the state's eight prisons. Corrections operates the classrooms outside the jails, too, in eight community centers that enable those who are released to continue their studies.

The Community High School set a solid milestone in 2004, for the first time graduating more than 100 students -- a big jump from the 18 diplomas issued in 1996, the first year the school graduated students.

Other numbers are equally encouraging: 17 students transferred credits to their local public high schools toward a diploma; more than 182,000 hours of classroom study were conducted in 2004; 308 students created individualized graduation plans; and 1,338 credits were issued.

These students take everything from math to social studies to auto mechanics. They are even required to have an art credit for graduation.

All of this is important for a variety of reasons. First, a high school diploma opens vocational doors for all Vermonters, not just inmates. A diploma is especially important for those coming from jail and trying to convince an employer of the inmate's commitment to success and value as a worker.

Second, a stronger educational background can result in higher-paying employment, hopefully reducing the likelihood of re-offense. Taxpayers -- in addition to the inmate -- benefit from that success.

Finally, schooling is important in building self-esteem for inmates, as well as a good use of otherwise idle prison time. Again, this ought to lead to a better chance at success for inmates after prison.

Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate was right in noting that the effort is worthwhile if it keeps even one person out of jail.

Too often, young Vermonters end up in jail because they feel the future has been closed to them. A high school diploma through the Community High School of Vermont might create futures, open doors, and unlock prison cells.



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