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Santiago Canyon Program Gives RISE to Stronger Families, Communities Feature Story

February 26, 2019

It’s not just the incarcerated individual who serves a prison sentence. With its ripple effect on families and communities, incarceration could be said to be the “evil twin” of education – tearing down support structures and productivity in the precise way that education builds them up.

“Some are unaware of how education can help them rebuild their lives and contribute positively to society,” says Rosalba Hernandez, Counselor at Santiago Canyon College and team member on SCC’s new “Project RISE” program. “Community colleges need to be prepared to provide the support and resources to serve formerly incarcerated students in their successful return to school.”

With communities to serve and socioeconomic gaps to close, California’s community colleges have made outreach to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students a priority. In just three years, enrollment in face-to-face community college courses inside state prisons has gone from zero to almost 4,000. Santiago Canyon College has been an innovator in Orange County, offering noncredit courses at all five county jails, and now committing to Project RISE – a high-touch support program focused on providing resources for formerly incarcerated students to succeed.

“Project RISE meets with formerly incarcerated students to discuss their educational goals and intentionally connect them to career pathways,” explains Hernandez. “Our students are motivated to reintegrate themselves within their communities by obtaining education and marketable skills for work and personal growth.”  

Project RISE supports formerly incarcerated students by providing free tuition for select career education programs and access to resources like workshops, financial aid, and basic needs assistance. The program revolves around custom, outcome-focused planning and advising, provided by expert counselors like Hernandez and facilitated by community partnerships with organizations like Volunteers of America’s Young Adult Reentry Program and Project Kinship.

“In addition to our presence in five Orange County jails, Project RISE team members go beyond the walls of the community college to engage reentry organizations that are already working with these students, such as the Orange County Reentry Partnership (OCREP) and the Orange County Parole and Community Team,” says Hernandez. “Our ultimate goal is to ensure that our students succeed in meeting their educational goals.” 

There’s no specific recipe for success, as formerly incarcerated students return to school with wildly varying levels of academic preparedness. This renders the initial assessment and counseling process essential.

For some, the first step will be an ESL class or basic learning program leading to a GED. For more acclimated students, the journey to financial freedom may begin directly with a short-term career skills program in a high-demand field like 3D Printing, Custodial, Commercial Food Preparation, Management, Administrative Support, Entrepreneurship, or Multimedia and Web.

It’s easy to imagine the potential impact of a cell-to-classroom mechanism, in which education could begin opening doors for former prisoners immediately upon completion of their sentence. There’s the economic impact, borne by the individual’s transition from dependence to productivity. There’s the impact on family – a future secured and a generational example set. And perhaps most germane to the mission of two-year colleges – there’s the impact on community.

“We welcome this opportunity to be part of this movement in the community,” says Hernandez. “Some students have secured employment after completing a certificate, while others are inspired to continue with their education after experiencing success in the classroom.

On a local level, programs like Project RISE are strengthening communities and building a higher education infrastructure to last for generations. On a state level, they’re lighting an effective – and cost-effective – path to fulfillment of broader system goals surrounding student outcomes and achievement gaps.

“The majority of incarcerated students fall into traditionally underrepresented student groups, and the promotion of equity and economic mobility has been a critical component of the programs for incarcerated students,” says Leslie LeBlanc, Academic Planning and Development Specialist for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

For individuals making the arduous, sometimes frustrating transition from incarceration to independence, Project RISE has been a game-changer.

“Resources are available that can change your life,” says one student testimonial from the Project RISE website. “This has been a miracle for me.”

For information on Project RISE and other outreach programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students at Santiago Canyon College, visit the SCC Counseling website.