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Growing a Partnership: SHINE and Middle River Regional Jail

John Lilly and Alice Graham

by Vici Garber

In August of 2017, Shenandoah Initiative for Adult Education (SHINE) decided to focus on the previously untapped population—citizens reentering the local community. Through an established partnership with the local Probation & Parole office, SHINE was able to connect with John Lilly, the program director at Middle River Regional Jail (MRRJ).

Middle River Regional Jail had its own independent GED® program, and it was not SHINE’s intent to interfere with their long-standing program. Instead, SHINE sought to create a seamless pathway for inmates who were unable to obtain their GED® credential while incarcerated to transition into the region’s adult education programs upon release. We asked for a slice of pie and were served a huge chuck! SHINE was invited to participate in MRRJ’s twice-a-month reentry class, allowing SHINE to distribute information and answer questions about adult education opportunities to soon-to-be-released inmates.

During one meeting, John Lilly stated that if SHINE wanted to be taken seriously in the local corrections landscape, adult education needed to be represented at the Central Shenandoah Valley Reentry Council (CSVRC). The regional specialist, Vici Garber, immediately joined the CSVRC meetings, exposing SHINE to a new network of community agencies and exposing those agencies to the services offered by the regional adult education programs.

Mr. Lilly mentioned his interest in the Career Readiness Certificate (CRC) and inquired whether SHINE could provide testing to the MRRJ inmates. The regional specialist is a CRC proctor; therefore, SHINE could offer to test the inmates. However, to be able to count the learners as adult education participants, we recommended classes be created to help inmates prepare to be successful on the CRC. John Lilly was immediately on board with creating classes. The only obstacle was that the Staunton-Augusta Adult Learning Center (ALC), the local SHINE provider, had not planned their budget with these new classes in mind.

Along came the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) innovation grant! In January 2018, the ALC coordinator wrote the grant and SHINE was awarded the Innovation Grant to provide Career Readiness Certificate preparation classes to inmates within Middle River Regional Jail. The short period of time in which the region had to spend the funds put the partnership in the unusual position of having extra funding to use, leading SHINE to approach John Lilly to discuss “dream services” that we might be able to offer at the jail. John Lilly requested an ABE-level pre-GED® class. With limited space within his GED® class, a pre-GED® class would allow those on the waitlist to receive GED® prep services.

SHINE’s pilot program for the pre-GED® class was helpful for MRRJ. The Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) assessment allowed John Lilly to know who was immediately ready for GED® testing and who needed to be next in line to add to the GED® class. Sadly, SHINE lost an instructor who had been perfect for teaching this population, and the innovation grant ended. Although the program did not survive past the grant period, SHINE and MRRJ recognize the need for a pre-GED® class and are working towards reinstating this program.

In March 2018, SHINE held its first CRC classes but ran into unforeseen complications including one cohort’s loss of all the learners within two weeks. This early setback could have ended our new partnership. Luckily, John Lilly allowed Vici Garber to do damage control. He was able to get the learners back in the classroom under new instruction, and the class thrived with engaged and committed learners.

With good results from the initial CRC classes, the ALC budgeted to continue the classes without the innovation grant funds and is currently serving its fifth CRC cohort. With each new cohort, SHINE adjusts to improve the classroom experience, creating a community that inspires impressive soft skills and academic performance. This is a win for SHINE, MRRJ, and most importantly, for the inmates who are served.

At VAACE in 2018, Vici Garber attended a workshop held by Rebecca Scott (Region 1). After hearing about her pilot PIuggedInVA program for the incarcerated, an inspired PluggedInVA Coordinator approached MRRJ about providing a cohort. John Lilly immediately responded with a “Let’s make this happen!” SHINE also partnered with Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC) with the intent to utilize the logistics curriculum that had been created by SHINE and BRCC through the Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities (CPID) Grant.

With several meetings to figure out the logistics and internet issues, SHINE started forging relationships throughout the different departments of MRRJ. Together MRRJ and SHINE recruited, researched, sorted, and chose the inmate candidates for the cohort. Selection criteria included, but were not limited to, sentence, release date, previous attendance in SHINE’s CRC classes, MRRJ staff recommendations, and TABE scores. Ten inmates were chosen for the pilot program.

The first PluggedInVA Logistics cohort was held in 2019 (January–April). The core team of the SHINE regional specialist (who also instructed CRC preparation, Northstar Digital Literacy, soft skills, and job acquisition skills), the BRCC logistics instructor, and John Lilly continued to develop a partnership of trust that was crucial to problem-solving the challenges of any new pilot. Additional relationships were created with the administration and other departmental staff, solidifying SHINE’s presence in the jail.

During this time, the Regional Specialist participated on two reentry councils with John Lilly. Today, Vici Garber serves as vice-chair of the Harrisonburg Rockingham Page Reentry Council and the chair of the Central Shenandoah County Reentry Council. Because of John Lilly’s advice to join those councils, SHINE has a leading role in the corrections and reentry network throughout Region 6 and is connected with partners who might not otherwise have had access to SHINE’s services.

Though our initial PluggedInVA did not generate the numbers we desired, John Lilly wanted the cohort to run again. Fortunately, SHINE received the PluggedInVA grant to fund another cohort, planned for January 2020.

SHINE and MRRJ have forged a solid partnership. We have brainstormed other avenues where SHINE can serve MRRJ’s population. Together, we hope to help make positive activities like education and workforce preparation a focus for incarcerated individuals and reduce recidivism.

Together, SHINE and MRRJ have presented as a team at VAACE (2018–2019), AE&L (2019), and the first VADOC conference (2018). This year, John Lilly was awarded VAACE’s Outstanding Workplace Education Partner! It was a pleasure for SHINE to be able to celebrate this ever-growing partnership.

Vici Garber

Region 6 Regional Specialist and PluggedInVA Coordinator since 2015, Vici Garber started her career with adult education in 2001 with a focus on employment services. She has previously worked as an independent GED® tutor, an employment specialist, and an ESOL instructor. Through the Shenandoah Initiative for Adult Education (SHINE), she has served as an instructor for GED® classes, job readiness, and PluggedInVA and as a co-teacher for Blue Ridge Community College’s logistics program.