Since April, five people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail have earned GEDs, a demonstration of high school academic knowledge.
Recently, a student nearly ten years past high school age passed the test. He wore a cap and a robe and received the certificate. Jack Pischke, inmate program administrator, says the student stopped to take the moment before prison staff took his picture.
“He had tears in his eyes. It was good to see that. He was one of those who had struggled for years. He never gave up. And we never gave up on him,” Pischke said .
Joe Tokar, the adult education coordinator at the prison through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said the student plans to attend community college once released.
The GED, formerly known as the General Educational Development Test, assesses knowledge in math, writing, science, and social studies. For more than two decades, instructors at the state-run Allegheny Intermediate Unit have taught students preparing for the test and administered them onsite and in person.
Although the learning never ended, testing, which takes place in person, has been put on hold. The prison has separated housing modules over the past two years. Whereas previously, inmates from different cells could combine for class work.
During the pandemic, students received paper packets with source material and assignments.
Every week, Pischke dropped off the packages at the IAU offices and took on more work. The instructors reviewed and commented on the material. It became more of a tutoring approach. About a year ago, teachers started visiting housing modules to work one-on-one with students.
The prison is slowly returning to live instruction, where students meet in a classroom with access to smart boards and computers.
“It’s a bit of a relief because for almost two years we’ve been preparing them to take the test,” Pischke said. “They are thrilled because now… they can see the fruits of their labor. This is the big key that opens the door to their future. You can’t go anywhere without your high school diploma. Now when they leave here they can honestly walk in and apply for a job and check the box that says high school graduate.
AIU’s Tokar said if formerly incarcerated people without a degree or GED can get entry-level jobs, the certificate will open up more opportunities.
“And that’s the key to being able to progress through the organization and earn family income,” Tokar said.
The program has been in place for more than two decades. Since 2014, 192 people have earned a GED through the prison program. One of the oldest graduates Tokar and Pischke remember is a 62-year-old Vietnam War veteran.
Some students had completed a few years of high school before dropping out, while others had left school much earlier. Tokar said there is no standard time frame for studying and taking the GED.
“Everyone learns at different times, at different paces, [or are] different types of learners,” Tokar said. “We’ve had people come to our classes for four weeks and pass, and we’ve had guys who were in our program for five years before moving on.”
Tokar said the goal is to return to the classroom environment. Meanwhile, a few formerly incarcerated people who studied for the GED came to the IAU office to take the test.
“It’s common for an individual to be released and we don’t hear from them for a few months and then they come back and say, ‘I have to finish my job or finish my test,'” he said. .