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MATC program helps children of incarcerated parents finish high school!

April 5, 2016 8:50 pm

Nineteen-year-old Bree Anna Wallace attended three different high schools before she finished her junior year. Then she dropped out. Her father has been in and out of prison her whole life. Her mother died last year. “I was trying to be on my own, but no one can do anything by themselves,” said Wallace, who has found a second family through the Right Path program at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

The program aims to help young adults whose parents have spent time in prison or on probation to break the cycle of poverty and criminality. The program covers tuition and course materials for students in GED prep classes or adult high school, as well as providing stipends to help them cover daily living expenses. (Full-time students get about $200 per month.) Right Path is funded by the MATC Foundation and the Creative Corrections Education Foundation, which was created three years ago by a retired federal Bureau of Prisons employee from Wisconsin.

Before coming to MATC, Program Administrator Marty Ordinans spent more than 30 years working for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. “I love to watch students succeed and hopefully do well for themselves as they move on in life,” he said. “If we can plant those seeds so that they do well and don’t fall back into the systems that their parents may have been involved in, then we’ve succeeded.”

Ordinans — whose office is filled with snacks, school supplies, necessities such as toothpaste and even books for his students’ young children — serves as a mentor to the program’s participants, who range in age from 18 to 25. He once spent five hours driving a student around the city to gather all the documents needed to obtain a photo ID. A couple of weeks ago, he assisted three others with opening checking accounts. Ordinans helped Wallace get access to free bus passes, making it possible for her to get to school without needing to rely on relatives or friends. He’s apartment-hunting with 24-year-old William Parchman. And every day after class, 25-year old Yilbelisse “Gigi” Rivera stops by Ordinans’ office on the way to day care pickup to grab a cookie for her 8-year-old daughter. For Ordinans, progress is measured in small steps: A student who calls to tell a teacher he will be missing class. A student who gets his first part-time job. A student who earns her first “A.” “I cannot have a bad day when I think about what these students go through every day to come to school: Transportation, food, where they live, family issues,” he said. “I have a great deal of admiration for the students that show up every day and come to school.”

The idea for Right Path was sparked in late 2013, when retired Bureau of Prisons employee and Wisconsin native Percy H. Pitzer came across a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study about Wisconsin’s mass incarceration of African-American men. Pitzer, founder and president of the Creative Corrections Education Foundation, already was providing college scholarships to children of incarcerated parents. During meetings with Ordinans, researchers at UWM and officials at the House of Correction, among others, Pitzer decided to expand his mission to include helping young adults finish high school. Pitzer’s organization pays Ordinans’ salary.

The MATC Foundation provided an initial grant of $10,000 and has since raised an additional $10,000 for Right Path, according to Christine McGee, executive director. The foundation covers tuition (which is minimal for high school classes, a bit more for vocational classes such as auto repair or culinary arts) as well as books and stipends.

Organizers originally planned for 25 students per quarter, but in practice, Right Path has ended up serving between 12 and 20 young adults at any given time. “They see the college as almost a safe haven. It’s something that provides the structure. It provides a place where people care about them and there are resources for them and it’s a constant,” McGee said. “It’s getting to school and dealing with all the issues they face in their lives that can be overwhelming. The challenge for us in offering any type of program is that we’re realistic in what we can expect and accomplish.” Right Path recruits students through partnerships with social service and criminal justice agencies.

Rivera heard about it through Next Door, a social service agency where she was taking classes to prepare for the GED high school equivalency test. She has been trying to finish high school since 2009, when she dropped out of 12th grade at Pulaski High School because she was pregnant with the first of her three children. She tried going back to traditional high schools twice, but didn’t graduate. The classes at Next Door were Rivera’s third attempt at completing a GED program. Right Path appealed to her because she liked the idea of taking courses with a group of like-minded young adults rather than the more solitary process of studying for the GED.

“I have a lot of supporters here,” she said of MATC’s School of Pre-College Education. “They push me into coming to school every day.” Right Path boasted its first two graduates in December. One of them, Steven Young Jr., was serving time for robbery at the House of Correction when he started his adult high school classes last summer. Officials there transported him to class. “If you don’t finish school, you can’t really get a job because you’ve got no high school diploma, so you’re going to go out there and try to get some money the illegal way,” he said. “If you finish high school you can get a job and do it the legal way.” Now out of jail and with his diploma, Young, 18, is working full time at Alro Steel. He plans to enroll in MATC’s welding technology associate degree program in August.

Wallace is on track to graduate in December, becoming the first person in her family to finish high school. After that, she wants to continue studying at MATC, taking criminal justice courses in preparation for becoming a police officer. Rivera hopes to receive her diploma in December, too, coming one step closer to her goal of becoming a nurse. “I want a better future for my kids and not have them struggle like I struggled,” she said. “I’m excited. I can’t wait to cross that stage.”

To donate to the Right Path program, contact MATC Foundation Executive Director Christine McGee at (414) 297-7997 or mcgeecm@matc.edu.

About Gina Barton

Gina Barton covers criminal justice. In 2013, she won a George Polk award for her investigation into the death of Derek Williams in Milwaukee police custody.