HAVERHILL, NH -- Just before Christmas, a group of inmates at the Grafton County Correctional Facility received a gift many thought they would never lay their hands on. Unwrapped, without ribbons, not redeemable for cash, their presents were small. Folded, they would fit easily in a pocket. Yet teacher Kenn Stransky called them "the biggest gift that you can give to yourself at Christmas."
The gift: A high school diploma.
"For you and your families, that's better than any gift you could have bought in a store," he told the most recent graduates of the diploma program based at the jail. "So, Merry Christmas."
The graduation took place in the lobby of the new jail on a rainy Thursday evening last month.
Before the ceremony, families and friends of the graduates waited in the entryway, the kids playing near a sign that said, "No weapons beyond this point."
When the doors opened, they streamed into the lobby, which was decorated with garland and strings of colored lights. Hope Lashua, whose son Todd Burge would receive his diploma that night, traveled from Gilman, Vt., for the event. Seeing him in jail, knowing they would be apart at Christmas for the first time, was "very hard," Lashua said.
"I don't like coming to visit him here because we've always been a very touchy-feely family," she said. "I don't like being told I can't kiss or hug him."
But that night, anticipating the graduation, her emotions were evident. "I'm very proud of him," she said.
One by one, orange jail garb peeking out from under their long black graduation gowns, graduates walked slowly across the room to receive their certificates.
Some grinned, pausing as audience members used cellphones to capture the moment; others appeared pensive .After their release, many will be looking for work with the shadow of a felony looming over them, a daunting prospect. But Stransky said he hopes that piece of paper will make a difference.
"You can't get a job unless you can check that box that says you've got a diploma," he said.
For the young men taking part, the ceremony was a bright spot in the dead of winter, a chance to change course after a string of bad decisions. And evidence, perhaps, that they are more intelligent than they thought.
The average stay at the jail is just 28 days, leaving little time for assessment, teaching and testing. Yet, it gets done, and those who pass a battery of five tests leave with a high school equivalency certificate.
"They are so young, they are here such a short time, and their scores are so high," said Stransky, a former school administrator who's taught in the program for eight years. "They are smart, but they don't know it."
While inmates arrive at the jail from a variety of places, they have much in common. Probably 90 percent have drug and alcohol problems, Stransky said. In general, they have been sent to jail for "petty crimes," such as shoplifting and possession of drugs. And the vast majority never finished high school.
According to the Grafton County Department of Corrections, 95 percent of inmates left school before graduating. To counter that, new arrivals are asked whether they hold a high school diploma; those who don't are invited to take part in the program. It's an opportunity few refuse, Stransky said.
The program, paid for with tax dollars, is "a huge investment in the future," Stransky said. Free for inmates, it includes independent study and time in the classroom, which Stransky has nicknamed "the magic room," because "no one can explain how we get these kinds of results."
Grafton County has been recognized as creating a new best practice, strongly encouraging "alumnae" who are in the housing units to tutor new students just coming into the jail, said Stransky, who spoke about best practices at a conference last month in Las Vegas. And students also receive help from the uniformed corrections staff, whom Stransky calls the program's "true heroes."
"The officers that are working in the housing units late at night are there and work with student inmates to solve a math problem or a grammar punctuation question," he said.
While New Hampshire once offered General Educational Development, or GED test, the state recently adopted a new program called "HiSET" that offers online and paper-based testing. A fee of $50 per student covers tests in reading, writing, math, science and social studies, with two re-tests available in each subject.
" If a former inmate can apply for a job and show that they are a high school graduate, then they will have an income to support themselves and their family," Stransky said. "They will not need to be on public assistance nor need public services, and we all know those cost far more than $50."
In the past eight years, more than 200 men and women have earned diplomas through the jail. Officials say the program has had a positive effect: While the national recidivism rate is above 50 percent, fewer than 10 percent of Grafton County inmates have returned to jail after completing the program.
That's an example Christopher Zullo, of Canaan, plans to follow. Zullo, 22, this year's salutatorian, was serving time for burglary, but he hopes to turn himself around. In high school, he took classes in auto mechanics. But he also worked long hours to help his family and mostly slept in school, he said. After dropping out, he thought about getting his diploma, but he wasn't sure where to go and didn't think he could afford it.
"Now that it's here, it's a good thing to have," said Zullo. And, he added, "It helps occupy the time."
When he's released, Zullo said, he hopes to take more automotive courses and maybe open his own garage one day. "I want to get out and stay on the right track."
Like Zullo, Burge dropped out of school before graduating. As a student in Colebrook, N.H., he didn't pay attention much in class and was getting in trouble, he said. The trouble continued, and a recent burglary charge landed him in jail in October. Soon after he arrived, he met with Stranksy, who gave him books to read to prepare for the tests.
"You study on your own time," he said. "If you want to pass, you have to study."
Burge was one of four graduates from the jail inducted into the National Honor Society this year. Membership is based on a student's academic accomplishments and behavior in the unit, such as showing leadership, tutoring others and staying out of trouble, Stransky said. "They have to act honorably."
Finally earning a diploma "feels good," said Burge, who previously worked at a factory in Littleton, N.H. When he's released, he hopes to apply to community college, although he's not sure what wants to study. He likes working with his hands and has done welding, so he may pursue that trade. Or maybe not.
"I'm open for anything," he said.
After the ceremony, Burge looked around the room, at the Christmas decorations, kids eating cupcakes with pink icing, people chatting and drinking lemonade from plastic cups. "It's like a vacation," he said.
Along with mortarboards, tassels and Pomp and Circumstance, no graduation is complete without advice. And speakers at last month's event didn't disappoint. Thomas Elliott, the jail's superintendent, congratulated the group for earning an important tool, one that "means a lot in the outside world." Yet, he added, their work isn't over.
"It's now your responsibility to continue to make positive steps," Elliott said.
Grafton County Commissioner Mike Cryans praised the graduates for participating in the diploma program, rather than letting the bad decisions that brought them to jail wear them down. And, seeing the many young children in the crowd, he noted an opportunity for the graduates to keep heading in a positive direction: When they leave, they can be better role models, Cryans said. And, he encouraged them to keep learning.
"Don't let this be end of your education," he said. "Get a good job. Take care of all these little kids ... Good luck and Godspeed."
Story submitted by Aimee Caruso.