PHOTO: High school equivalency graduates from Luster Heights Prison at commencement on June 2 are pictured with teacher, Lisa Fiorucci. (L to r): Kyle Combs, Seth Johnson, Lisa Fiorucci, Joseph Beverlin and Mike Walton.
By Dan Russo
CALMAR — When Mike Walton, clad in a cap and gown, walked with a class of 11 high school graduates at Northeast Iowa Community College’s (NICC) campus in Calmar recently, he marked an important moment in his life that was a long time in coming. The ceremony June 2 occurred about 16 years after he originally dropped out of school.
“I was nervous,” he remembered, of his feeling before receiving his diploma. Afterward, he said, “A weight lifted off (my) shoulders.”
Walton and three of his classmates — Kyle Combs, Seth Johnson and Joseph Beverlin — were not your typical students. They were the first group to prepare for and pass the high school equivalency exam (known as HiSet) while serving time in Luster Heights State Prison, a minimum-security facility in nearby Harper’s Ferry.
The prison had offered General Education Development (GED) classes, another version of the high school equivalency curriculum, many years ago, but funding and staffing challenges ended the program. Now, thanks to a combined effort from the Luster Heights staff, NICC, and private donors, including some in the Catholic community, high school equivalency classes and tests are being offered again, providing hope and a brighter future for students who will eventually be re-entering society.
The four graduates began studying in January and passed their tests in May.
“I’d got kicked out of two different high schools,” explained Walton of his reasons for dropping out.“I didn’t feel challenged. I already had a job. I lost interest.”
Years later, he ended up incarcerated at Luster Heights and decided to turn over a new leaf. “I thought, ‘Why not better myself?’” Walton said. “I did actually learn (through the classes) that I was a better writer than I thought I was. I plan on being released from here in a few months. I know HiSet is going to help.”
The revival of the high school equivalency program at Luster Heights started after NICC officials collaborated with staff at the prison. Participation is voluntary for students.
“This is a huge accomplishment,” said Kris Kovarik, treatment services director at Luster Heights. “This is something that would likely not be achieved on the outside because there are obstacles and life issues that get in the way. The whole point is successful reentry. Education is huge.”
The cost for one student to complete it is about $100. To raise the money to pay for books and other necessities, NICC started a special fund through its foundation. College and prison officials then reached out to Deacon Bill Hickson, coordinator for the Jail and Prison Ministry for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque ,to aid in promoting the project and asking the public to help.
“Catholic Charities Jail and Prison Ministry has visited Luster Heights monthly for many years, and many of the residents become clients in our reentry programs of mentoring and Circles of Support and Accountability,” said Deacon Hickson. “We were involved about six or eight years ago in finding tutors and coaches for the old GED program and are pleased that NICC has formed this new program to reestablish the effort.”
Catholic Charities is not raising money directly for the program, but encourages parishes and individuals to donate to the NICC fund as a way to fulfill the corporal work of mercy of visiting those in prison for this Year of Mercy.
“By equipping prisoners with the materials to complete their high school education, we can improve their chances for employment after release from prison and send a strong message of hope to them that the larger community cares about them and wishes to support their efforts to improve their lives,” said Deacon Hickson.
Lisa Fiorucci, an adult literacy instructor for NICC, has spent three days each week at the prison, teaching for several hours each visit since January.
“All you can do is let them know there is a positive direction out there and there are people that care and it’s their choice,” she said.
While a parishioner at St. Joseph in Elkader, Fiorucci felt called to get involved in Jail and Prison Ministry and began volunteering with the old GED program. She believes the Holy Spirit has helped make the program possible, even when funds were uncertain.
“We ended up with almost the exact amount we needed,” she said. “The money would be there.”
Fiorucci joined Kovarik, prison counselor Robin Bernhard, NICC testing technician Carol Cameron, chief examiner Karen Davidson, Anamosa State Penitentiary warden William Sperfslage, and Gisella Aitken-Shadle, NICC’s district adult education and literacy development director, at the ceremony.
“These guys pushed each other,” said Counselor Bernhard. “I was just really so proud of them … It really made (the graduates) happy and proud of themselves. They have a confidence now that they didn’t have before.”
With the success of the pilot program at Luster Heights, NICC is looking to expand the high school equivalency program to other prisons and has already started a career pathways training program at Luster Heights for high school graduates.
“We’re very grateful for our partnership (with Luster Heights Prison and the donors),” said Aitken-Shadle. “I think the students are very grateful and they were very engaged and motivated.”
Fiorucci is assiting a growing number of students. She feels her role at the prison has boosted her spiritual life.
“I always had my faith,” said the teacher. “I felt like I got re-ignited. I feel in my life the Holy Spirit is pushing me in a direction that this is where I’m supposed to go.”
Funding for the educational programs continues to be a major challenge. Anyone wishing to contribute to this special project can send donations to: Northeast Iowa Community College Foundation, Box 400, Calmar, IA 52132. On the check or money order memo line write “Luster Heights Account.” The foundation will issue a receipt to donors for their tax purposes, if their address is on the check or money order.