Cathie Anderson

North Sacramento school puts ex-offenders on road to middle-class jobs

Ricky Gamble, of Sacramento, goes through a checklist of things that he will be tested on before he takes a driving test to become a truck driver. He attends the Highlands Community Charter & Technical School, which helps ex-convicts get on the road to a job with its truck-driving courses at the Senior Gleaners parking lot.
Ricky Gamble, of Sacramento, goes through a checklist of things that he will be tested on before he takes a driving test to become a truck driver. He attends the Highlands Community Charter & Technical School, which helps ex-convicts get on the road to a job with its truck-driving courses at the Senior Gleaners parking lot. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The slight, 76-year-old Ward Allen happily surrounds himself with brawny ex-offenders, erstwhile thieves accustomed to not being trusted, convicted murderers who served their time but can’t find a job to support themselves or their families.

Allen has been transforming the lives of these men and women for 17 years – first for Sacramento City Unified School District and later for Twin Rivers Unified School District. This year, he joined with three business associates – Mike Brunelle, Jacob Walker and Kirk Williams – in opening what each hopes will be an enduring institution that will educate ex-offenders and other adults without high school diplomas.

Twin Rivers school board gave its blessing to the endeavor last March, seeing it as a way to revive the district’s adult education program, which had undergone dramatic cuts. The new Highlands Community Charter School qualified for a three-year government grant of $2.5 million to $3 million. Like any other school, it also receives funding based on attendance.

“We opened the doors Aug. 11 of this year to our first class,” Allen said. “We’re teaching truck driving over here with Senior Gleaners. We’re teaching pre-apprenticeship in a classroom in the back with the labor unions, so students who go through the pre-apprenticeship program then can go up to the union hall and sign up as a second-year apprentice. When they go out to a job, they make another couple bucks an hour. It gives them preference.”

It is the truck-driving program, however, that draws many parolees trying to get a fresh start and substantially boost the income they can earn in a short period of time, said Marvin Speed, the Capitol District parole administrator with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“If we can address the parolee’s ... needs and they become a productive, tax-paying citizen, they gain self-esteem and their family situation improves because their kids or significant other look up to them,” Speed said. “They’re less likely to revert to their criminal ways because they work and they earn something tangible to them.”

Allen noted that, over the 17 years that he has been involved with the truck-driving program, the recidivism rate for ex-offenders who graduate has been about 7 percent.

Speed said Allen has a lengthy list of successful graduates, and Speed calls upon them to speak at orientations for parolees just out of jail or prison. The cost of educating a parolee at Highlands charter school is small, compared with the cost of prosecuting and incarcerating a repeat offender, Speed said.

While getting their education, the parolees also give back as volunteer interns at the Senior Gleaners facility on Bell Avenue in North Sacramento. Allen approached Senior Gleaners with the plan just as the school year began because he wanted his truck-driving students to be able to practice in a large parking area, which Gleaners had behind its facility.

Highlands interns have been able to get forklift licenses to operate equipment in the Gleaners warehouse, and they go out as assistants with licensed drivers, getting tips on driving and business relations while also making deliveries. Rosie Cerna, the director of operations and compliance at Senior Gleaners, told me that the benefits of having Highlands’ students and staff on the campus go far beyond loading and delivering the food.

“They have helped us to reorganize our facility,” she said. “They totally cleared out our back end. You couldn’t even see the fence before they came. ...We have 300 volunteers and nine staff members, so we weren’t able to really focus on that area of the facility. Students cleared out containers and did landscaping for us.”

Highlands master mechanic, Roy Jennings, maintains the trucks for Senior Gleaners, Cerna said. Maintenance bills had averaged probably $8,000 to $9,000 a month before Highlands took that on, she said, but those numbers have been cut by 50 percent. The trucks operate better, Cerna said, and they’re always in compliance.

Cerna said that if she needs anything, she can call upon intern coordinator Kevin Benjamin, a Highlands student who has been given the responsibility of ensuring that interns are available and ready to go. Benjamin told me he did several stints in prison for nonviolent crimes that supported his drug habit. There were times during his last stretch at Pelican Bay State Prison when he wasn’t sure he would make it out, but the 44-year-old, father to four girls in a blended family, said he wanted things to be different if he was released. He told me he’s glad he chose Highlands.

“I’ve been in places where people find out you’re on parole, and you get stares and people are whispering,” Benjamin said. “Before you know it, you’re back in prison. My last prison was Pelican Bay, and I thought I wasn’t going to leave there, and so to come here and have the trust, I have keys and alarm codes, it means a lot. It’s a special place.”

Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.

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