A School Behind Bars

Brett Schaeffer

Mary O’Mara

There are a lot of teach­able moments,” says Mary O’Mara, direc­tor of Five Keys Char­ter School in San Fran­cis­co. Launched in Sep­tem­ber 2003, Five Keys is the first — and, at this point, only — char­ter school inside a prison. The school’s name is used to remind stu­dents of the impor­tance of edu­ca­tion, employ­ment, fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty and recovery.

Five Keys is designed to catch its stu­dents as they move through the sys­tem. Men and women age 18 and up take class­es toward a high school diplo­ma in two San Fran­cis­co Coun­ty jails and one post-release site. The stu­dent-pris­on­ers typ­i­cal­ly are in these loca­tions for a short time — 90 days on aver­age — await­ing sen­tenc­ing or release. In our first 40 days we had 850 stu­dents, and only 62 were there for the entire 40 days,” O’Mara says.

O’Mara, a for­mer mid­dle school and kinder­garten teacher at pri­vate schools in afflu­ent Marin Coun­ty, was select­ed as the school’s leader last year, when the San Fran­cis­co Coun­ty Sheriff’s Depart­ment was look­ing to start a char­ter school.

Open­ing any char­ter school is a big under­tak­ing, but this is even more so,” she says. Still, she’s hope­ful that Five Keys’ suc­cess will serve as a mod­el for oth­ers. We’re work­ing hard to cre­ate this so that it can be replicated.”

Why devel­op an entire school and not just a math class or a writ­ing class? Those have been done before and would seem, well, eas­i­er to do.

Basi­cal­ly the vision for this school is from Michael Hen­nessey, the sher­iff. His vision was to have the stu­dents actu­al­ly obtain a high school diplo­ma, not have a smat­ter­ing of edu­ca­tion­al class­es, but actu­al­ly to get inspired in jail to get a high school diplo­ma as a tool to move for­ward. So that’s the goal of the school, not just to pro­vide lit­er­a­cy. We have a large range of abil­i­ties in our pop­u­la­tion, so we try to meet the needs of any­one [in the jails] who doesn’t have a high school diploma.

How do you decide on a cur­ricu­lum for such a var­ied stu­dent population?

We offer the core high school cours­es, and then we have [stu­dents’] tran­scripts, which help us select cours­es for the stu­dents in order for them to meet their aca­d­e­m­ic goals.

We also have a lit­er­a­cy-based class, because we’ve iden­ti­fied about 26 stu­dents who read below fifth-grade lev­el, so we have a learn­ing spe­cial­ist who choos­es the cur­ricu­lum and works with the instruc­tor in that class. A cou­ple of stu­dents don’t read; they’re illit­er­ate. So we have the full range of students.

We have the same [aca­d­e­m­ic] require­ments as the San Fran­cis­co school dis­trict. As [our stu­dents] com­plete grades we add it to their tran­script. And we have a post-release site so when they come out of jail they can go there and con­tin­ue their edu­ca­tion or go on to com­mu­ni­ty col­lege or anoth­er edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty, depend­ing on the student.

Some might say your stu­dents already had their chance to go to school like every­one else. Why give them sec­ond, third, fourth — and in some cas­es fifth and sixth — chances?

What’s the alter­na­tive? The alter­na­tive is that they go back and repeat the same cycle of behav­ior. And they end up in the same place. So this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for them. This is the time for them to make a difference.

And a lot of these stu­dents were dropouts. The school sys­tem did not serve them. A lot of our stu­dents have learn­ing issues that were nev­er diag­nosed. A lot of them come from very dif­fi­cult fam­i­ly sit­u­a­tions, dif­fi­cult neigh­bor­hoods, and weren’t giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ties that oth­er stu­dents have had.

So in some ways it’s real­ly society’s respon­si­bil­i­ty, I feel, to try and meet the needs of these very impor­tant cit­i­zens — because they will come back out into your com­mu­ni­ty, and my community.

Do we want them to come out edu­cat­ed and feel­ing good about them­selves? Or do we want them to come out in the state that they came into jail? I think it’s our best inter­est to try to give them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to change.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH