San Francisco jail inmates earn high school diplomas through unique program

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For high school students working toward graduation, memorizing the history of World War I or learning how to find the square root of a hypotenuse can be daunting. 

For those who are incarcerated, the challenge of completing the required coursework is almost overwhelming.

But on Thursday, 18 young people who are locked up in San Francisco and San Bruno jails beat the odds and received their high school diplomas by completing coursework through a charter school founded by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department 15 years ago. 

It was clearly a proud day for all the graduates. And many weren’t shy about sharing their pride with the few hundred friends and relatives who packed the commencement ceremony at the San Francisco Hall of Justice.

“I would like to give a shout out to myself for motivating myself to go hard and never back down on nothing,’’ graduate Maleek Christopher told the crowd, while also thanking the teachers and staff members who helped him at the Five Keys charter school.

Christopher said having his diploma in hand was a big step toward erasing the shame he felt for not graduating on time.

“When I went to my brother’s graduation and saw him get his diploma and walk that stage, it made me sad,’’ he said. “I was ashamed of myself because I was supposed to be right there next to him receiving mine as well. But, hey, look at me now.”

Christopher said he hopes to one day become an engineer. 

Many of the graduates are high school drop outs who mixed with trouble at a time when they were supposed to be building their futures.

They are locked up for crimes ranging from small time theft to murder, but given a second chance at success through the unique program, said Steve Good, the executive director of Five Keys Schools and Programs.

More than 2,100 young people have earned diplomas through the Five Keys programs, he said. 

“For years, jails have locked up people and thrown away the keys. When they get out, they are supposed to be better citizens. We know that hasn’t worked,’’ he said. 

Five Keys was established by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department as the first charter school in the nation to operate inside a county jail. 

Today, it's a nationally recognized educational non-profit that operates accredited charter schools and programs for youth and adults at 70 locations across California. The “five keys” are education, employment, recovery, family and community.

Undersheriff Matthew Freeman, who started working in the jails in 1991, said the concept of a high school operating in a jail was not thought possible back when he joined the force.

But in 2003, that changed. 

“Time spent incarcerated would no longer be wasted time, watching TV, rolling tobacco cigarettes, and endless hours spent in boredom, which led to increased frustration and despair,’’ Freeman said.

Five Keys Board Member Suzy Loftus said the graduates, though still incarcerated, sent a message that working toward re-entry into society is possible by believing in themselves and the power of education. .

“And by believing in the power of your choice,’’ she said.