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Wash U Prison Education Project Celebrates First Grads, Program Expansion

052521_JoeAngeles_WashingtonUniversity_of_RobertHenke_at_PEP2019graduation.jpg
Joe Angeles /
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Washington University
Robert Henke (in blue), shown greeting several graduates of the Washington University Prison Education Project during a 2019 commencement event, joins the talk show Tuesday for a closer look at the program.

Ever since launching Washington University’s Prison Education Project at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific in 2014, Rob Henke and Barbara Baumgartner have been passionate leaders of the program. Dozens of men have taken the Wash U-taught courses while incarcerated. In recent years, those efforts have paid off in the form of college degrees.

Washington University faculty member Barbara Baumgartner (pictured at far right) threw a celebration at her home last week for several graduates of the university's Prison Education Project, two of whom have now gone on to earn bachelor's degrees (including Jim Brock, center right).
Barbara Baumgartner
Washington University faculty member Barbara Baumgartner (pictured at far right) threw a celebration at her home last week for several graduates of the university's Prison Education Project, two of whom have now gone on to earn bachelor's degrees (including Jim Brock, center right).

At the project’s first commencement ceremony, in 2019, 10 students earned their associate degree. And now, two of them have gone on to earn bachelor’s degrees from Wash U, with another set to complete his course of study this summer.

Baumgartner gathered the graduates and their friends and family, along with project faculty, at her home late last week to mark the joyous occasion. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was on hand to capture the festivities, putting a particular spotlight on Brock, who earned a BS in integrated studies this spring. Coincidentally, both of the graduates finished their sentences in the past few years and are now free men.

“It’s just something so special to see them — Jim Brock and Jameel [Spann] — out and getting their degrees and celebrating it with their families,” the project’s director, Robert Henke, told St. Louis on the Air.

Henke said that Spann took a job with the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison before moving last year to Nashville, where he’s been working for the National Bail Fund Network and applying for law school.

Brock is now a dog trainer eagerly building his business to create further opportunities for others, as well as the alumni coordinator for the Prison Education Project.

Henke still fondly recalls Brock’s enrollment in his class on classical and Renaissance literature.

How A New Mellon Grant Has Wash U Faculty Who Teach Incarcerated Students Thinking Big
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with Rob Henke, director of the Washington University Prison Education Project.

“We read ‘The Odyssey,’” Henke recalled, “and [Brock] brought his dog to class while we were doing ‘The Odyssey.’ And in the particular class when we came to that great moment in ‘The Odyssey’ when Odysseus, who is still disguised as a beggar, sees his dog [and] his dog recognizes him ... and the dog [Brock] was taking care of was in the classroom, and we just had a rollicking good time over that.

“He was wagging his tail, and he did not die [unlike Odysseus’ dog],” Henke added. “Under the great tutelage of Jim — he's prospered.”

The Prison Education Project has even more to celebrate than graduations this spring: The project was recently awarded a two-year, $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

That funding will allow Washington University to create a second in-person program at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri, over the course of the next year.

“It’s 100 miles away, so an instructor’s probably not going to go there every week,” Henke noted. “But as we are starting the program at the women's prison, we’re also developing — and this is another big part of the grant — a new learning management system that does not require internet. Think Canvas, think Blackboard, but not at all something to replace on-site teaching, because we passionately believe in face-to-face instruction.

“But the way people use these learning platforms to supplement — of course we've used them a lot, almost excessively, during COVID — students will be able to submit assignments, we'll be able to give them assignments, have online discussion [with] a closed-server system. So that really is gonna make Vandalia possible, because we'll be able to one week maybe have a more of a remote interaction, and then the next week, go out there and keep the class going week after week.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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