It’s hard for Shannon Swain to pick the most memorable instance of the transformational power of correctional education.
She recalls a conversation she had with a man who had learned to read while in prison, who told her the joy he felt when he was finally able to read to his children. She remembers one especially motivated incarcerated student who was earning his master’s degree at the same time as his daughter. Then there was the time she met a group of four former life inmates – who she initially thought were CDCR employees – and was so impressed she invited them to speak at a graduation about their new lives.
Swain is the superintendent in CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education (OCE). She oversees a swath of CDCR that many people don’t know exists – a dedicated school system of more than 50,000 students. Each of CDCR’s 34 institutions has an accredited adult school, with offerings ranging from basic literacy and career technical training, to high school diploma acquisition and college courses.
All schools are accredited and all teachers are credentialed.
Swain’s correctional career found her when she was a college student looking for any paid internship that would mesh with her class schedule. She was hired as a tutor in a half-way house in 1985.
“I felt a bolt of lightning,” Swain said about that first day on the job. “I worked with a man on probation and heard how he had survived on the streets. Immediately, I knew this was what I was supposed to do with my life. Ever since then I’ve worked in or around corrections.”
Swain and Brant Choate, the director of CDCR’s Division of Rehabilitative Programs, have led efforts to create innovative offerings that have captured national attention, including the country’s first face-to-face bachelor’s degree program that is a collaboration between two large public agencies — California State University, Los Angeles, and CDCR — at California State Prison, Los Angeles County (LAC). Despite the pandemic, last year 391 students earned an associates degree, nine earned a bachelor’s degree and one student earned a master’s degree.
Swain is proud of the correctional education staff and all their accomplishments, but says building a cutting-edge college program has been particularly gratifying. Six CDCR institutions offer bachelor’s programs through a nearby university or college: Central California Women’s Facility and Valley State Prison collaborate with CSU Fresno, Folsom State Prison and Mule Creek State Prison team with CSU Sacramento, LAC works with CSU Los Angeles and California Rehabilitation Center has partnered with Pitzer College. Next year, a bachelor’s degree program between RJ Donovan Correctional Facility and University of California, Irvine will be added.
CDCR offers face-to-face associates degrees and college correspondence courses at each institution. In total, there are approximately 14,000 students enrolled in a college course within CDCR.
Swain and her staff retooled the education program from the foundation up: drafting a strategic plan, aligning instruction with state profession standards, and training employees on a motivational communication style proven successful when dealing with resistant students.
OCE also has transformed its instruction model, implementing a data-driven curriculum that identifies where the most help is needed and dedicating resources to address those deficiencies. For instance, if test data show a large number of students are struggling with fractions, a team of educators will develop an enhanced curriculum and purchase necessary resources. When data show success, educators analyze what is being done right and work to replicate that success elsewhere. Swain’s office is also overseeing an initiative that will distribute laptops in phases for use in education and institution programs.
These accomplishments haven’t come easily, particularly during a pandemic. When frustrated, she said she focuses on the father reading to his children, and all the other success stories.
“I remember that I am in service for others and people’s lives are changing in positive ways,” she said. “It’s the best work in the world.”
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