English teacher helps prison inmates improve as students

May 23, 2019

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Kimberly Piper spent the majority of her career teaching middle schoolers. About four years ago, she was looking for a change.

She found the Department of Corrections was looking for an English teacher for Granite State High School, a micro school district that operates within the prison walls.

Piper knew it would be a different teaching experience, but she also felt it would be the perfect fit.

“All through my career, I’ve enjoyed working with students who were maybe at risk of potentially ending up in the justice system and found an affinity there,” Piper said from the classroom at the women’s prison in Concord. “It’s been a great experience.”

Piper has been teaching English and literature at the prison for four years. She is one of nine semifinalists to be named New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and is the first teacher from Granite State High School to be nominated.

The high school, which is fully accredited and recognized by the state Department of Education, offers inmates without a high school diploma the opportunity to earn one. Those who already completed high school can take classes as well.

Of course, a school within a prison feels different from a traditional public school. Security is a top priority, and the class times are dictated by a “movement schedule.” Inmates are not allowed internet access, which limits teachers’ ability to call up information or show a video to students, a hurdle that Piper and her colleagues regularly work around.

But those differences don’t impede the learning process, Piper said. In a way, teaching at the prison has been easier because the students attend of their own volition.

“They might not be excited to be in prison, but they’re choosing to come to school,” said Piper, who has worked with students ranging in age from 18 to 70.

On Tuesday, Piper led a discussion on The Great Gatsby with her 20th Century Literature class. She stood in front of a whiteboard where assignment deadlines were scrawled in marker to one side.

Desks were set up in a semicircle facing the board with students jotting notes and thumbing through the pages of the book. Their assignment was to create a poster or write an essay exploring one aspect of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book.

Robin Langlois, one of Piper’s students, said she has struggled with reading for most of her life and dropped out of high school as a freshman. Now 51, Langlois, who holds a GED, is in the second year of her renewed quest to earn a diploma. Langlois said Piper has treated her as a student in a way that other teachers did not when she was a child.

“The teachers weren’t as involved,” she said. “They thought of you as troubled children, and some of us weren’t troubled, we just had a hard time learning things because of our challenges.

“The teachers here,” Langlois added, “they try to make you feel like a student, not an inmate or resident. A person.”

Eliminating judgment from the classroom is the most important thing, Piper said.

“These are adults who, for whatever reason, did not succeed in school to begin with,” she said. “Whatever reason they are here has nothing to do with me. A judge and jury decided that, and it’s not my job to make it any harder. They’re here to do their time and get ready to go back into the world.”

Tara Monsante, sitting next to Langlois in class, agreed that Piper has helped her regain confidence. Monsante, 44, of Canaan, fulfilled a promise she made to her daughter when she earned her diploma back in September. Even after succeeding, she decided to keep taking classes.

“She’s really here to help us and to give us knowledge and help better ourselves,” said Monsante, who will be released in less than a year. “She definitely makes us feel like real people.”

Piper has taught in both the men’s and women’s prisons since taking the job. She’d like to start a literacy initiative to help inmates who struggle with reading. Perhaps then more might pursue the educational offerings at the prison.

Monsante and Langlois both said they’ve tried to encourage more students to join.

“I try to get some people to come to class, but they don’t want to,” said Langlois, of Claremont, who is up for parole next year. “It keeps you busy, your time flies by, and you’re learning. I’m glad they have these opportunities here. It’s an accomplishment I’ve always wanted but never thought I could get.”

Piper said class enrollment can be fluid as inmates finish their sentence or get paroled out. She’s had as few as four students in a class but typically there are more, especially at the men’s prison, which has a larger population.

Access to resources can be challenging, Piper said. She recently obtained some new editions of Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird for her literature courses. The major lack is on the technology side, she said. When Piper was teaching in public schools, she had a smartboard and her students could access a full room of 20 computers on a shared network.

“Here it takes a lot more planning and effort to get any of those resources in here,” she said. “Part of that is due to security, and part of that is due to the budget.”

The school holds a graduation ceremony in both the men’s and women’s prisons each June for students earning a diploma. The graduates wear a black cap and gown and can invite approved visitors to attend the ceremony.

It’s a common thread among educators to feel joy when a student succeeds. That sentiment carries more weight when working with inmates, Piper said.

“I’ve seen these students before. Not these particular individuals, but I’ve seen that kid before,” Piper said. “That kid who was going to drop out and get in trouble because school just didn’t work for them. Whether it’s learning disabilities or home life, whatever may be impacting their ability to succeed at school, these men and women here have figured it out and put it together - with our help, but largely it’s their determination to decide to do it. We’re just here to help them along the way. That’s really powerful for me.”

The state’s teacher of the year will be announced in September. John Groves of Bow High School is also a semifinalist.

Online: https://bit.ly/2HFEXyy


Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com