Adult Education | St. Louis Public Radio

Adult Education

Lack Of Access, Long Waitlists: Education In Illinois Prisons

Mar 4, 2020
Seven men completed an entrepreneurship program at Hill Correctional Center last April. But waitlists to take classes like this are long and preference is given to those who have the shortest sentences. Feb. 2020
Lee V. Gaines | Illinois Newsroom

When Ralph Gray transferred from one prison in Illinois to another, he didn’t know the move would mean sacrificing access to an education. 

Gray guessed he was 16 credits shy of receiving an associate degree from Lake Land College, a community college that offers classes in several prisons in Illinois, when he left Western Illinois Correctional Center, a medium-security facility located between Springfield and Quincy. 

When he arrived at Graham Correctional Center in southern Illinois several years ago, Gray said he was told he’d be placed at the end of the waitlist for an auto body course. The class was the reason he requested a transfer. Gray said he's still on the waitlist. 

The Tipton Re-Entry Center resembles an office space, with desktop computers, conference tables and carpeted floors. The center, which opened Wednesday, aims to break the cycle of reincarceration by connecting inmates with job resources prior to release.
Missouri Department of Corrections

Inmates at a Missouri prison will be able to prepare for the workforce prior to their release, thanks to an in-house training program. 

The Re-Entry Center at Tipton Correctional Center, the first of its kind in Missouri, opened Wednesday. The center will connect inmates with potential employers and provide a variety of educational resources. The Missouri Department of Corrections plans to open three additional re-entry centers in other prisons across the state next year, as part of an effort to break the cycle of reincarceration.

Amanda McCleary, 33, moves her tassel at the first graduation ceremony of MERS Goodwill's Excel Center high school for adults May 29, 2019. Goodwill runs the schools across the state under a recent state program.
File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Three courses of algebra stood between Amanda McCleary and a high school diploma.

McCleary, 33, tried twice over the years to earn a GED certificate since dropping out of Vashon High School in St. Louis as a teenager, but the timing wasn’t quite right. When she learned from a friend about a high school for adults being started by MERS Goodwill, “I called instantly,” she said.

McCleary was one of five women in bright blue caps and gowns at the first graduation ceremony in downtown St. Louis Wednesday evening for the alternative high school program that started in October. A sixth student had to miss the ceremony for work.

Everlene Falconer, 64, waves to her family after receiving her diploma from the University of Missouri-St. Louis on December 15, 2018.
August Jennewein | UMSL

When it comes to her education, Everlene Falconer won’t let anything stand in her way.

The 64-year-old received her Bachelor of Educational Studies on Saturday from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Falconer earned her degree in less than four years, while also working part-time, completing internships and caring for her five grandchildren.

Natalia Cantu stimulates the neurons in a cockroach leg at a lab session on July 25, 2018, while fellow program participant Ryan Evans observes.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Natalia Cantu attaches electrodes to a cockroach leg and taps its spiky hairs with a paintbrush.

The neurons in the leg fire rapidly in response, appearing as sharp peaks and valleys on her smartphone.

Cantu, who teaches ninth-grade biology in Edinburg, Texas, is in her second year of Washington University’s Master of Science in Biology for Science Teachers program. As part of the program, high school teachers from across the country do hands-on lab work to improve their own knowledge of science, in the hopes that they can help spark an interest in their students.

College and graduation illustration
Illustration by Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Goodwill, the nonprofit organization best known for its thrift stores, will operate a network of adult high schools across Missouri, with its first scheduled to open in St. Louis in October.

MERS Goodwill, the Missouri and southern Illinois branch of the job training agency, announced Tuesday it won a contract with Missouri education officials to open four schools.

David Wea, 62, works on a geometry problem in an adult education class. August 25, 2017.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Aug. 28 to correct Kris Shannon's title — The director of one of Missouri’s adult education programs is worried high school equivalency tests are being undervalued.

A new Missouri law will establish four adult high schools in the state, including one in St. Louis. The bill sponsor wanted adults to have a chance to complete a high school curriculum because, he said, a diploma is more attractive to employers than a GED certificate.

 Terry Johnson, 25, uses a computer at St. Louis Public Library's central branch on Thurs., July 20, 2017. Starting in October, students will be able to use computers like this one to obtain an online high school diploma
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

The more than 80,000 adults in the St. Louis region who didn’t earn a high school diploma will soon have two different ways to finish their degrees.

Enrollment will begin in October for the online program jointly run by the St. Louis Public Library and the St. Louis County Library. And a new Missouri law is paving the way for an adult high school to open in St. Louis sometime in the next two years.