Hundreds of inmates have gotten boost from his classes behind bars

Sheriff honors educator for work at Detention Center

June 17, 1999|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

A dose of motivation and a boost in self-esteem are the keys to unlocking the door for Carroll County inmates who want to complete their high school education, says James Young, a longtime teacher whose classroom is behind bars.

Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning honored Young yesterday, presenting him with a plaque recognizing his 10 years of teaching the General Education Development program at the county jail in Westminster.

Young, 68, a Westminster resident, has been a teacher and administrator for 46 years, most of it in Carroll County. He retired as principal of New Windsor Middle School in 1986.

"I decided in 1989 that I missed teaching, and this has been a good outlet, teaching here [in the Detention Center's multipurpose room] and at the Westminster Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter on Lucabaugh Mill Road," he said.

Young estimated that his part-time job -- two-hour classes four mornings a week for about 48 weeks a year -- has enabled him to teach about 500 students.

He figured that about 300 of those have passed the internationally recognized GED tests, five exams covering writing and language arts, literature, math, social studies and science.

Development of the GED program began in 1942 to assist World War II veterans who had not completed high school.

Passing the GED tests requires scoring 225 points of a possible 400 and writing a 200-word essay, Young said. In Maryland, students must also achieve a minimum score of 40 on each test or retake any failed portion of the five-part test.

Young said some of his students were released before taking the GED tests but have gone to Westminster High School and completed the program.

"I have taught inmates who completed the program at the homeless shelter and, unfortunately, I have had some start the program at the shelter and complete it [at the Detention Center]," he said.

Young steers clear of asking inmates why they are incarcerated.

"I did that one time and found out the guy had committed a heinous crime," he recalled. "I've never asked again."

Married with three grown children, Young said his family has never expressed concern for his safety.

"I've had friends who reacted, `You teach in there?' when they learned I was teaching in the jail," he said.

Young said he has never been intimidated by an inmate but that he felt queasy his first day at the jail when five locked doors electronically opened and clanked shut behind him en route to his makeshift classroom.

"The program is voluntary, so the students want to be there, want to learn," he said. "For the most part, they have low self-esteem. They find a little success and see the door opening a little bit."

Many, he said, are just "good people who took a wrong turn in the road."

Of the many letters he has received from former inmates, Young recalled one that said taking the GED classes marked the "first time someone believed in him."

Young is compensated, but he said his true reward comes with each success story.

He has had a 64-year-old inmate complete the program and has helped two correctional officers who attended his classes when the sheriff's policy changed, requiring them to have high school diplomas or GED certificates.

The program is not easy, Young said.

"The GED questions are field-tested nationally every year, and 45 percent of high school graduates cannot pass them," he said.

From Young's perspective, teaching inmates is like teaching any other class.

"They need motivation to complete their assignments," he said. "Other than their wearing inmate clothing, they are like any other adult class."

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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