Cuts proposed for Community High School of Vermont

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BRATTLEBORO — Community High School of Vermont advocates are worried how state budget cuts could affect sites where students go once they are released from prison.

"It's come to our attention that the governor's proposed budget for the coming 2016/17 calls for a $750,000 reduction in funding for the school," said Rev. Sarah Flynn, a CHSVT citizen advisory board member. "And this would eliminate the staff and the extension sites of the campus."

That means the facilities in communities where people recently released from prison, who are on probation or parole, attend high school or work-readiness programs.

Hearings are being held statewide from 6 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 15, to address the issue. The Senate and House of Representatives Appropriations Committees will be taking notes at St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, Williston, Rutland and Bellows Falls in the Windham Antique Center.

Family members of people involved with the prison system are encouraged to come and speak on behalf of the high school, Flynn told the Reformer.

"But the general public has a dog in the fight as well," she said. "You don't want to keep recycling these people in and out of jail. You want to break that cycle? You're going to need to educate them and help them with their personal problems in such a way that they can get a job and lead a productive life."

Rep. Matthew Trieber, D-Bellows Falls, plans on attending the local hearing along with Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Ludlow. He said he has not yet come to any final decisions on Gov. Peter Shumlin's proposal.

"As the only rep or senator from Windham County on a money committee, I have to be careful in commitments one way or another," Trieber said. "We are still hearing testimony and I look forward to hearing from Vermonters at the public hearing."

Brattleboro Community Justice Center Director Darah Kehnemuyi is advocating against those reductions. He taught at the Brattleboro site and said he had seen "time and again" the effectiveness of the program.

"A lot of what was provided was a stable environment for people's lives who were in other ways chaotic and difficult," he said. "Between the prison sites and street sites, it was the largest high school in the state. I don't know that it is anymore."

Funding was cut before, affecting staffing at the field sites. Kehnemuyi was laid off in the process.

The school has helped not only those in and then out of prison. Three young pregnant girls who didn't want to go to Brattleboro Union High School anymore were able to attend CHS. They were good students and knew where they wanted to go, Kehnemuyi said. And Brattleboro's site collaborates with local programs to help people in treatment for drug or alcohol abuse.

"By closing down this effective educational option, we will leave these students and our communities vulnerable to unemployment and poverty, which can contribute to increased recidivism, dependence on state benefits and result in a less skilled labor force," Kehnemuyi wrote in a letter. "It would be a significant loss to our community should we lose this extremely valuable resource."

While there's been a general drop in Vermont's prison population and Vermonters going to out-of-state jails, Flynn said former inmates need to follow up on their education, whether that's to get a diploma or some other certificate.

"They can't get back into jail to do it," she said. "These sites are conveniently located."

Flynn worries there is no plan in place to serve students on the outside once the sites are eliminated.

Many of the CHS students have completed high school, she said, but "only too typically" they were not competent enough to find employment. She would know. She was formerly a registrar of the school.

Approximately 25 percent of the school's new students could not pass assessment tests given to determine whether they could handle college-level courses, according to Flynn.

"They had to do remedial work before they could continue, especially in math and English," Flynn said. "So many of the people in prison got there via the prison pipeline, which is the public school to prison. What happens is either students drop out or they're expelled. They have no skills to get jobs and end up getting involved in criminal activity."

Not only are academic or work-related skills acquired through the school. Social skills can be learned through programs like Habits of the Mind. Flynn said the program teaches students to be aware of their attitudes, which are often self-defeating and can get in the way of them reaching their best potential.

National studies show people who complete an educational program in prison have a better chance of not returning, according to Flynn.

"It is the one proven way of reducing recidivism in Vermont and yet the Legislature has not only cut the funding this year. There have been cuts in prior years of funding," Flynn said. "The high school has lost nine positions in the last five years or so and the welding program. That doesn't look too good from the standpoint of how we help these people keep out of jail."

Housing a prisoner costs between $40,000 and $60,000 a year so it doesn't take too many inmates to make up for the figure being proposed for cutting, Flynn said.

Students could be looking for different avenues for obtaining their education if the proposed cuts are approved by the Legislature.

"Whatever diminished condition the Community High Schools are in now from three years ago, they still might be saved," said Kehnemuyi, who believes the school's budget should be "significantly" increased if anything.

Maddi Shaw contributed to this report. Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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