Inmates Earn High School Diplomas through Alternative School Program

May 28, 2009

Inmates attend their graduation ceremony. "Never stop learning," said Deputy Sheriff Captain Fred Wood to the eight young men dressed in caps and gowns, accepting their high school diplomas. Speeches and applause echoed through the room, but the real celebration for these new graduates will be months or years delayed. All eight are inmates at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, counting the weeks or months until their release or waiting for transfer to a state prison for a longer sentence.

The Interagency Alternative Schools is a partnership between the Fairfax County Public Schools and the Sheriff's Office. Fairfax County special education teachers Wanda Thompson and Muhammad Nawaz provide a challenging and effective learning environment in the jail based on the Virginia Standards of Learning.

“I tell my students that just because they have a 'special ed' label does not mean they cannot achieve a high school education," said Thompson. "The students talk about their mistakes, some with regrets and others to better understand that the actions they took were wrong." She tells them to accept the consequences of their actions, but be prepared to move on, to look toward the future.

"These young people have never worked so hard on something worthwhile," she said. "The curriculum is rigorous. What makes this special education is the setting, not the curriculum."

Thompson and Nawaz tailor their lesson plans based on each student’s profile. They gather information from the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, Adult Detention Center, school districts in Fairfax and other counties, and the Virginia State Department of Correctional Education.

“Our goal is to learn as much as we can about the students to help each one reach his or her academic potential,” Thompson explained. "Students that leave here with a high school diploma are prepared to enter community college, apprenticeship programs or find adequate employment. They call or visit to let us know how well they are doing or to ask for further advice in order to continue to move forward in their lives."

FCPS provides staff, materials and program direction to 44 school programs administered and funded by other public agencies. These alternative schools offer an education program for disruptive or disaffected youth who have not been successful in traditional school settings. Through the use of success-oriented teaching methods and materials, small class size and a structured environment, these programs facilitate the students' positive growth and development in both academic and social skills. Each school is specifically designed to meet the needs of the student population of the host agency.

For more information, please e-mail Lt. Dan Pierce, Supervisor, Inmate Programs (Sheriff's Office) or Joan Ledebur, Coordinator, Interagency Alternative Schools (Fairfax County Public Schools).


Pictured above: Alternative Schools Coordinator Joan Ledebur addresses the inmates who are graduating now - wearing caps and gowns - and those who will graduate in August.

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