Teacher has helped 300 Blount inmates get GED
By J.J. Kindred | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Current and former Blount County jail inmates such as Misti Hearon and Rebecca Stinnett are prime examples of not letting the mistakes that put them there in the first place get in the way of their futures.
Hearon, Stinnett and other current and recently released inmates were among dozens who received their GED (General Education Development) and CRC (Career Readiness Certificate) certifications during their incarceration.
Thanks to their teacher, Al North, they have a renewed sense of worth and are ready to get their lives back on track. North was a volunteer in the Blount County Adult Education Program, and has been teaching in the GED program for about six years, prior to going to the Justice Center under the jurisdiction of the Adult Education Program.
He has been inside the Justice Center for about three years teaching GED and CRC certifications.
North said he was originally at the jail to present a CRC program, which evolved into the GED program, making up the educational program at the Justice Center.
“I also expanded that to career planning in conjunction with the certification,” North said. “It goes beyond classroom instruction, working on the skills to pass the GED with essay writing, reading and math.
“Beyond that, we are also involved in life skills education, which is probably our most popular program. It teaches how to manage money, improve their skills of interviewing, and then they go back in the community and learn how to effectively present and sell themselves into whatever potential career they choose.
“We do an interest assessment, and determine whether they will have to pursue something different than where they came from.
“Primarily, what we’re doing is measuring career readiness in areas of math, reading and data analysis, so they will be able to communicate to potential employers that they have these skills. That’s what we’re all about,” North said.
Hearon, 31, is about to be released from jail after serving about five months. She just finished her GED requirements and is now ready to enter the employment world and hopefully continue her education down the road.
“It’s something I needed to pursue for a long time,” Hearon said. “Skeptical? Very. After you’re out of school for such a long time, I didn’t believe I could do it at all. I would say thanks to the sheriff and to Mr. North, doing things the way he does. He takes the time and has patience with us. We’re stubborn people.”
300 inmates helped
North said he has helped more than 300 inmates receive their GED certifications. Classes are held in an activity room in one of the pod areas in the jail about two to three days a week.
“We have some on the waiting list,” North said. “The activity room is the primary location and we provide them with materials. We have expectations of what they carry inside the pod, and work they are expected to handle outside of the classroom.”
North said it was pretty common to have participating inmates not wanting to cooperate and do the class work, but said he tries to build the attitude that education can be of value.
“I try to get them to overcome their fears of failing and whatever they experienced in the past,” North said. “They get to a difficult math problem and they throw their hands up and they say I can’t do it. It’s my responsibility to make sure they don’t give up. Those are pretty common challenges I face, and once I break through and get them in the mind-set they can do it, the bottom line is they keep coming back. It’s voluntary, and they don’t have to come.”
Hearon said there wasn’t any subject she liked over another.
“I didn’t like any of them. I’m an equal opportunist,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t like it, but I did it. It wasn’t hard to concentrate at all. There’s distractions in everything you do, even in a classroom. Mr. North pretty well gives you the agenda with what you’re supposed to. And if you want to, put your ideas on paper.”
North said that most of the inmates that go through the program have a strong desire to continue their education.
“Absolutely,” he said. “There are a couple of stepping stones. If they take advantage of getting their GED for employment purposes, many inmates have a desire to continue their education through tech school or vocational school. It’s about 50-50, and a huge opportunity.”
“I’ve been out of school for over 15 years, it only took a month to get the rust off,” Hearon said. “I got my GED in three months. He put me through a few classes and put me straight to testing. He believed I was capable of doing it. He gave me the hope that I did so good on the practice test, that I could do anything.”
Stinnett, 29, was in her class with North and Hearon for two months, two days a week. She was incarcerated four months and was released on Valentine’s Day.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Stinnett said during a visit to The Daily Times. “Now that I got my GED, it changed my whole outcome on who and what I want to do with my life. Getting (my certificate) when I saw it in the mail, it just helped me look at life a whole lot differently and look forward to going to college.
“Before, I felt I wasn’t doing well for myself, and I just wanted to do bad, and now that I’ve got something to look forward to, I want to do good and do something with my life. I’m tired of going to jail and going down the wrong path.
“Mr. North is a great teacher, and I got good scores on my GED because of him,” Stinnett added. “I was stressing when I took it, because it was a hard test. It was the math and mostly the reading. My essay, that was the big part. It was the hardest, but I put my mind to it and did it. They gave me a good topic — what I want to do with my life for the next five years. I wrote about wanting to get my education and being a good person in society, and finding a job I had a passion for.”
Stinnett said she wants to continue her education by going to cosmetology school, and is making preparations to do so through the Tennessee Career Center.
Forming a community
North said the transferring of success from other inmates inside the pod has helped build relationships.
“They kind of form a bond with each other and form a community,” he said. “We have people like Misti and others that are mentoring. We only have a couple of hours at a time. The real benefit is how they can communicate with each other. It inspires me. I’m teaching hope, and I find I’m as excited as she is.
“I don’t see them as inmates,” North continued. “When I’m in the classroom and they come into that room, I make that very clear. I don’t care about their past, I want them to focus on what they’re trying to do. I don’t see them with stripes on.”
“I know he doesn’t do it for the pay,” Hearon said with a laugh. “You can feel it. You know he’s there because he cares about you. He takes the time and has the heart behind it. He means what he says to you.”