ACSA members Jeanie Cash and George Manthey provided training to prison instructional coaches and prison administrators last year as part of an effort to transform prison education in California. (Photo illustration)
Transforming prison education through principal coaching
ACSA members train administrators in California’s prison system
December 4, 2023
Behind tall fences and razor-wire barriers, a silent revolution is taking place within the walls of correctional facilities in California. Within these institutions, a group of dedicated individuals is quietly reshaping the future for those who have often been forgotten when it comes to teaching and learning — the incarcerated. This transformation depends on the leadership of prison principals and assistant principals. These unsung heroes, tasked with the unique responsibility of overseeing education behind bars, have embarked on a journey of change designed to alter the course of the future.
In fall 2022, Jeanie Cash and George Manthey were approached by Martin Griffin, the associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Griffin had attended an ACSA Leadership Coaching training and was impressed by the strengths-based approach to evoking greatness in educational leaders. Part of the planned revolution of prison education is to improve the relationship between administrators and teachers in order to model an improved relationship between teachers and students, Griffin explained. He met with Cash, who works with ACSA Leadership Coaching, and Manthey, former ACSA Educational Services director, and shared his desire to provide the training for all of the school administrators in the state prison system as part of this vision to transform prison education.
Cash and Manthey realized that if they were to accept this challenge, they needed to visit classrooms within the prison system. After their security clearance, Cash and Manthey toured two of our state’s prisons to observe classrooms.
“As I stepped into the prison school, I was struck by a stark reality that changed my preconceived notions and ignited a sense of urgency,” Cash said. “I learned that all inmates who have not obtained a high school diploma or obtained a GED are required to attend school, however, over 70 percent of inmates have not mastered reading.”
One of the teachers shared her new library and a shelf filled with recently purchased books that were all geared to the reading level of first- and second-grade students. Yet women in their 20s and 30s were excited that they were learning to read these books. In the men’s prison, there was a noticeable difference in the GED preparatory classes and in the CTE classes across campus. In GED classes the wide range of abilities generally resulted in individual worksheet-focused instruction. Cash and Manthey observed that, in the CTE classes, students were highly engaged in learning to operate machinery, build assorted structures and even train to be firefighters. The principal informed them, however, that the recidivism rate for incarcerated individuals, in spite of learning a skilled trade, was extremely high, in part because of how difficult it was to obtain a job with a prison record.
Leaving the tours of prison classrooms, Cash was reminded of a principal who attended the ACSA Principal’s Institute a few years ago. He was the principal of a school for incarcerated juveniles in San Diego County. This principal made it a point to ask every student in his school one question, “What could we have done differently in school to keep you from being here today?” He was astounded that almost every response was, “Teach me how to read.”
Literacy Mid-South notes that the National Adult Literacy Survey found that “70 percent of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level,” and shares that The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”
Cash and Manthey facilitated the Evocative Coaching workshop for principals and assistant principals in California State Prisons in Northern, Central and Southern California.
“It was an amazing experience to work with these dedicated leaders, provide them with new strategies and insights and see their passion to make a difference with those they serve and reshape the educational landscape within the confines of our correctional institutions,” Manthey said.
Manthey worked with the leaders on the concept of empathy, how to provide meaningful feedback to the teachers with whom they worked, and the key ingredients of motivation. Cash focused on appreciative inquiry strategies and how to ask the right questions to motivate teachers to engage students in their learning.
“It was a joy for us to work with over 100 prison administrators and witness their passion and determination to impact the inmates, promote literacy and coach teachers to engage adults in a way that provided them with an ‘I can do it’ mentality,” Cash said.
One young man they met not only obtained his GED, but was taking college classes online through Pitzer College while in prison. He said, “This has literally changed my life; I know now that I am capable and can do something noteworthy with my life.”
The involvement of ACSA members in the prison system goes beyond Evocative Coaching. Several administrators in the prison schools have chosen ACSA to clear their administrative credential. For example, last year, one of ACSA’s credential coaches, Aaron Haughton, agreed to coach an assistant principal at Soledad State Prison who had enrolled in the ACSA Clear Administrative Credential Program. Throughout the year, he was excited about her growth as an administrator, and they were notably impressed with his coaching — enough so that Haughton was invited to be a guest speaker for the graduation at the Soledad Prison in October.
Training both prison instructional coaches and prison administrators was an incredible experience for Cash and Manthey. They have become even more dedicated to the necessity of ensuring that no children leave school without competency in reading.
Both Cash and Manthey said, “Kudos to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for investing in their leaders and understanding the central role school level administrators hold in educational reform.”