Guest Discussion: Adult Learning Disability Populations within Secure, Correctional Facilities

Hello to group members from Disabilities and Corrections,

Final preparations are being made for our joint guest discussion between the Disabilities in Adult Education group and the Correctional Education group.  The title will be Learning Disability Populations within Secure, Correctional Facilities.  It will begin on Monday, January 12th and will run through Wednesday, January 14, 2015.

Our LINCS Community will host Dr. Brant Choate and Steve Good from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Five Keys Charter Schools respectively, which provide education services to San Francisco and Los Angeles’ County Jails.

With the goal of examining how to best provide adult education services to students with learning disabilities, this conversation will be of particular interest to adult education personnel including those in correctional facilities as well as support personnel, program planners, career and technical educators, curriculum developers, assessment personnel, and professional developers.

To benefit from this unique discussion, make sure that you keep up with messages throughout each day.  As always, your participation, comments, and questions will be very much appreciated.

To prepare for this discussion, you can review these three LINCS Disabilities Collection and Correctional Education resources:

   1.  Understanding the Complexities of Offenders’ Special Learning Needs

   2.  A Reentry Education Model: Supporting Education and Career Advancement for Low-Skill Individuals in Corrections

   3.   Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons


Group members have already posted some wonderful questions to guide the guest speakers.  I am posting those questions below:

   1.  What are the statistics and incidence/prevalence figures relating to Learning Disabilities within secure environments?

   2.  In what types of secure environments are adults with LD placed?

   3.  How are learning disabilities diagnosed in secure facilities/classrooms?

   4.  Are inmates tested in their native language if LD is suspected, and what diagnostic exams are used?

   5.   In what percentage of cases are incoming inmates already diagnosed with LD?

   6.   What other disabilities are prevalent in existing inmates?

   7.   What are some of the constraints on correctional education in serving adult students that have learning disabilities?

   8.   If students self-identify as a person with a disability, what services are available to them in a prison or jail classroom?

   9.   What LD-specific professional development best suits the needs of educators in secure classrooms?

   10.   What types of critical job skills training programs are available to students with LD in correctional facilities?

   11.   What kinds of motivators/rewards can teachers use in correctional facilities?

   12.   How does recidivism relate to the need for continuing practice for students with LD?

   13.   How does the process of requesting accommodations for the GED Testing work in correctional facilities?

   14.   What is the passing rate for students in your programs that receive accommodations on the GED Tests?

   15.   Do inmates with LD use computer-based tests in a secure facility?

   16.   Since all the advantages of using the Internet for instruction don't apply in secure facilities, what do teachers utilize in place of that strategy?

   17.   Are correctional facilities able to implement any form of technology in secure classrooms?

   18,   What are some of the best curriculum resources that teachers from the field recommend?

   19.   Can manipulatives be used in correctional facilities?   If so, how are they being used?

   20.  What other instructional strategies are teachers using to help their incarcerated students improve their literacy? 


If you have additional questions prior to the Jan. 12, 2015 start date, please continue to post them here.

Kindly use this discussion thread for all your responses.  The guest speakers will begin posting their content onto this discussion thread.

I am really looking forward to this great start to the new year!!


Thank you,

Rochelle Kenyon, SME - Disabilities in Adult Education


Heather Erwin, SME - Correctional Education




Hi Rochelle,

I think it is important to note that CEA does offer PD workshops and presentations at both of their annual conferences (the Leadership Forum -- coming up in March, and the larger Annual Conference -- following in July), but also that CEA has recently been extending their reach to include remote PD trainings to correctional educators in partnership with LINCS Regional PD Centers. This is an important collaboration in the effort to integrate Correctional Educators into the broader community of adult educators nationwide through the use of technology and the use of remote platforms newly available to many teachers and administrators in secure facilities. This Community of Practice can be an important driver in shaping and promoting opportunities for change and innovation in secure classrooms. I hope this discussion can serve as a springboard for just those results. 

-- Heather Erwin, Correctional Ed Group SME

Hi Rochelle,

We receive approximately $120 per unit of ADA in federal funds (average daily attendance of our entire student population) restricted for special education. We don't have any restrictions on how much or little professional development we provide with this money; however, as Jennifer has mentioned, PD is a priority for our schools and the SELPA we belong to has also made professional develop a key part of their office. Having said this, each year our SELPA has to approve our SPED budget and we have to perform a maintenance of effort to continue our funding.

The CEA unfortunately has reduced their footprint on the west coast. Years ago I attended a CEA conference and it was terrific. The CDCR presented on evidence based practices in corrections which was fantastic, in recent years the CEA has been more focus on the east coast and their hasn't been a CEA conference in the west.



Steve,   Your point is loud and clear~   Our entire discussion strand will be read by many in the field and will also be archived.     Certainly the LINCS Regional Professional Development Center for Region 4  ( ) would be a great resource for PD as well.   Rochelle Kenyon


I can's speak for all of CA, but I'd assume the experience in SF and LA is probably similar across the state / country. In both SF and LA it took a law suit to bring awareness to the LA and SF school districts and sheriff's departments regarding special ed. for the incarcerated--- Garcia vs. LA Unified School District ( Five Keys has been providing special education services to our students since we opened in both counties; however, prior to 2012 neither SF or LA school districts or sheriff's departments viewed this as their responsibility. With the Garcia case, there is now an increased awareness of their legal responsibilities. San Francisco Unified School District has asked Five Keys to enter into an MOU to provide SPED service to inmates in SF that are not enrolled in our program, and LA Sheriff's Dept. has organized an ongoing working group to ensure those identified LD students receive services.

To piggy back on Steve's comment, the Garcia case really looked closely at a school districts responsibility when it comes to seek and serve within an incarcerated facility. The Open Letter mentioned also looks at the responsibilities of the multiple entities that are ultimately in charge of providing FAPE and to keep the stall in a student's learning to a minimum. It's a student's right to receive FAPE and it is our opportunity to create relationships among LEAs, districts, schools and the facilities to provide this right. 

The legal mandate of IDEA is for special education services to be provided up until the age of 22 no matter the entity (District, LEA, State, Incarcerated Facility). At 22, students "age out" of the sped system and neither education nor special education services are mandated after that point. 


In reality, all correctional educators are "Special Education" teachers.  It seems like the majority of our students suffer from some form of learning disability...some even related to addictions.  We often talk about people going undiagnosed.  This begs the question--what do we do?  If someone is diagnosed, or not, how does this change reality? In other words, now that we "know" someone is LD, what would we change about our instruction?   I would think that professional correctional educators would already know what to do with our without a diagnosis.   Wouldn't it be nice if there was a one-size fits all program that helps people improve their reading skills? I guess I struggle with the term "undiagnosed" as though this is the excuse for that person not succeeding.  Your thoughts?


Hi Brant,

For those reading this discussion, Brant was responsible for 5 Keys being part of the LA County Jail system.

In response to your comment, I've always felt that teacher training programs need to have a greater emphasis on LD because much of what our special educators do are really best practices. I agree that our correctional educators are really SPED teachers, they have to be. The challenge is the recruitment and training of teachers for this population. This challenge creates a great need for ongoing PD, not only in the SPED arena, but in how to work in this environment. And how to keep our teachers' focus on student achievement and learning, and to not overly identify with the practices of custody staff. In other words, keeping teachers focused on the education piece, not the incarceration part---all while being cognizant of their environment and the unique challenges it presents outside of teaching.

The closest I can come to a one size fits all for the incarcerated adult learner to improve their reading skills, is a phonics based learning system, with peer instruction like the Laubach system.

Most studies say phonics works for 80% of the population, although it does not reach 100%, 8 out of ten is a very good starting point.

The problem with one size fits all is that one size does not truly fit ALL.  For many of the students I teach, the one way for everyone model did not work when they were attending school growing up and it still doesn't work.  I try to adapt my lessons so that various ways are presented to the students and students use the method that makes the most sense to them.  Many students are stuck in the "if you don't do it my way it's wrong" concept and I struggle to have students break out of that mindset.  I tell them there are lots of different ways to do math correctly.  If your way will give you a correct answer every time then use it.  It may take a while for the student to feel comfortable enough to try another way, but once they do, they seem to make progress faster.

Thanks David and Brant for introducing the need for specific, actionable practices for students facing learning disabilities -- either diagnosed or undiagnosed -- in secure classrooms. I have been looking further into the Theory of Multiple Intelligences over the past couple of months and believe that there are great possibilities, especially given the financial/budgetary constraints state and county facilities face, for at least introducing MI activities into corrections classrooms in an effort to address some of the current prevalent learning challenges. For example, a student with lower strength in Linguistic Intelligence (reading/writing) but a strong Spatial (picture/artist), Kinesthetic (body) or Musical Intelligence would benefit from alternative activities focusing on reading comprehension such as drawing a picture that represents the passage the student is trying to interpret, developing a dance or sequence of movements that represents the meaning of a passage, or setting a reading passage to music through a song or rhythmic sequence. These alternative, "grassroots" options in adult and corrections classrooms could go a long way toward helping students to increase classroom confidence in addition to improving learning outcomes. These suggestions begin with professional development in which new theories and activities are introduced to staff.

Thanks again for you thoughts.

-- Heather Erwin, Correctional Ed Group SME

One of the problems in correctional education is the tendancy to require that all students answer questions with paper and pencil. It can be very difficulty for students with a low reading/writing level or a learning disability to answer questions this way because they may not have the skill. This does not mean that the students do not have the correct answers to the questions. For example, before I taught in corrections, I taught mostly remedial 9th grade English. I remember a student who was a tenth grader sitting in my class repeating ninth grade English because he had failed it. It didn't take long to figure out that he was going to fail again because he could not read and write very well. He simply didn't have the skills. In one literature unit, I got ahold of a simplified text. He was allowed to demonstrate that he had actually read the book by answering comprehension questions verbally with me before school. He also did poster and drawing assignments to show his understanding of the setting, characters, and other elements of the story. This student wasn't dumb; he just couldn't read very well. And he was able to demonstrate his learning through ways that involved his strengths in talking (oh, could this kid talk!) and drawing rather than his weaknesses of reading and writing. One problem with using alternative methods like these is time. There often just isn't enough time to sit with one student when there is a whole classroom waiting. That is why I met with this student on my own time before school. But it is a very worthwhile and easy thing to try with those who have high skills in some areas and low skills in others.

Hi Kris,

Welcome to this discussion.  I can identify with the issue of time.  A good teacher never has enough time, even when he/she does things during her own time.  That commitment and passion makes a difference to students.

Will you share with us what your favorite things are about being a corrections teacher?

Thanks for your continuing participation.


Rochelle Kenyon, Subject Matter Expert

Disabilities in Adult Education Group


Hi Brant,

That is an interesting suggestion.  What is involved in getting an inmate approved to volunteer as a tutor for other inmates?  How common is that in secure facilities?

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


I teach at California State Prison, Corcoran. I have not had inmate tutors for many years because I have taught mostly in our special programs--testing, Disability Placement Program (DPP), and now Enhanced Outpatient Program (EOP). In those programs, I have never had a classroom all to myself as there just isn't enough space. And because I did not have my own space, I also did not have an inmate tutor assigned to me. But I agree that this would be a very good solution. A student can practice reading fluency with an inmate tutor or answer the questions to a reading passage out loud to an inmate tutor. This helps with the time factor.

Hi Heather, 

Currently I am reading We Make The Road By Walking It: Conversations on Education and Social Change This is the transcription of conversations between Miles Horton and Pablo Freire, both grassroot pioneers in adult education. One of the most poignant pieces that I have read so far is the idea that education should be a conversation between the learner and the teacher. Being able to demystify education and have all stakeholders be part of the continual evolution of curriculum allows the learners to take ownership and eventually the learners can become the teachers. Interesting perspectives on Adult Education. 

Hello Jen!

I've been reading Freire for a course I am currently taking.  His is a fantastic perspective and incredibly applicable to the corrections environment.  As some earlier comments point out, it is sometimes (often) difficult to engage incarcerated learners.  By demystifying education and encouraging learners to be active in the process can we empower them to seek knowledge, even after bad/traumatic experiences in earlier classroom settings?


Many of the classrooms use workbooks for curriculum.  While workbooks are necessary sometimes, especially in open entry/open exit programs, what can the teacher do to better manage a "workbook" classroom to create the "conversation" you suggest? 



Good morning Brant, 

A quick sidebar, my first teaching experiences was working .with at risk preschoolers on emergent literacy skills. Interesting or sadly, I worked in the same neighborhoods of San Francisco as our current in custody population come from. During this time, the program based their approach in Reggio Emilia; a student centered curriculum that allows children to do self directed learning with an empathizes of bring realia into the classroom. Examples would be the dramatic play area would have real fruit, the morning paper and real pots and pans. The goal was to have the children to find their own interests and the teachers would build curriculum and delve deep into the subject matter.  This was a process centered approach rather then product centered. This primed my own personal teaching philosophies. 

I was fortunate enough to be a  BTSA mentor to two of our in-custody teachers in LA. BTSA is Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment and is one way to clear your general education credential in CA. I was also an independent study teacher at Five Keys in San Francisco at a community site (non custody). I understood the challenges of having a classroom of 10-20 students pop in and out working on 10-20 different subjects from writing sentences to quadratic equations. 

With my mentees, we had to trouble shoot this exact question. How do we create a dialogue to have student centered learning when you don't have the same students and they are working on different things?

One approached that worked well was a daily riddle or brain teaser written up on the board. If there was a low literacy student or a student with visual processing needs, the teacher would just say it outloud for the whole class to hear. The point was not to get the right answer but to allow students to talk out the problem. We asked students to bring us their own riddles. 

Quotes from popular movies or lyrics was another approach. Some times they would be written on an index card and given to students as they walked in. Their exit ticket was to write or draw something about the quote. The next day, some of the responses were anonymously shared and discussed.. 

One of my favorite activities was Visual Thinking Strategies. This approach uses art to start a dialogue. I really liked using pictures of murals from the neighborhoods the students came from. Often, the students had not stopped to look at the murals and it would become background noise. This was a chance for them to reflect on their neighborhood and to delve into the layers and messages in the murals. This activity could be done both simultaneously or asynchronously. The following day, the same picture would be up and the anonymous comments would be posted as well.  

All these approaches created times for dialogues that were focused on the process of evolving ideas and the debate. The teacher can monitor the discussion and prompt students to push the thinking further or to reframe some of their ideas bringing it back to the subject matters being touched upon in the packet work. 

The teacher can continue the conversations the following day on ideas or topics that produced the largest response. 

This is difficult and time consuming for the teacher. Little prep work can be done since it is student driven and your prep can only happen after the class has finished. But the payout of building trust and rapport with students is amazing. For them to see their ideas as the driving force in what a whole class is talking about is validation of their experiences. When working one on one, you can connect ideas that student made with the ideas expressed in packet work. 



Hi Jennifer,

I really appreciated your message.  What you describe are examples of techniques that can work especially well with students that may have LD, and certainly with all students in general.  They are interesting, engaging, and different.  Within the Disabilities group, I posted a discussion message labeled, Visualizing to Improve Comprehension ( at )  If you have time, I would appreciate if you could post a message with your recommendation of the resource in that location.

Using Visual Thinking Strategies can lead to real progress with students. 

Thank you,

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Some workbooks lend themselves to a "conversation". For example, in CDCR, we were recently provided with the Voyager series. Voyager starts each lesson with a picture; students talk about what they see in the picture and predict what the reading selection will be about. That is an excellent example of using a workbook to create a conversation between teacher and students, or better yet, between the students themselves. One strategy that I like to use is to answer a question with a question. For example, when a student asks a question about our lesson, I can say to the class, "Who would like to answer that question?" Then I can monitor the discussion to ensure that all the facts given are correct. I have learned that I talk too much when I teach, and the students don't talk enough. When we get the students talking, the lessons tend to be more applicable to real life and more higher order thinking takes place.

This year, in California, we are placing all of our efforts into professional development.  Our first step is to build the capacity of our 92 school administrators and helping them become instructional leaders of their schools.  Our teachers are our best resources... we need to provide the best training and materials so they can be successful. 


Brant Choate

I wanted to comment on the difficulty of obtaining documentation of learning disabilities for adults in corrections. As the discussion has noted so far, there is no requirement to test older adults for learning disabilities. We teachers frequently get students who tell us that they were in special education classes in school. Many other students say that they were told by a teacher that they have a learning disability but they did not seem to be formally evaluated. Since we do not test adults for learning disabiilties, we are left trying to get copies of older records. To obtain copies of special education records, IEPs, or psychoeducation evaluations, we send a request to the last school that the student attended prior to incarcertation. I have learned that California schools are required to keep transcripts of course work and grades, but they are not required to keep special education records. After three to five years after the student graduated from high school or would have graduated from high school, the records are destroyed. That means that unless a student is age 23 or less, there is no hope whatsoever of obtaining these records from the schools. When we can obtain documentation of a learning disability, then that student can receive services appropriate to the disability. But when we cannot obtain documentation, then we have an inmate with an apparent disability but we tell him that he is not entitled to receive any services and he is left to sink or swim as best as he can. One example of how this complicates education for our students is in GED testing. A students with a learning disabiilty may request accommodations on the GED test. In order to obtain accommodations, the GED candidate is required to provide documentation of recent scores on specific psychoeducational tests. Yet it is impossible for the inmate to obtain accommodations for a learning disability on the GED test because the inmate has no access to the testing that is required. I understand, and actually agree, that it is cost-prohibitive to screen inmates in CDCR for learning disabilities. On the other hand, there is a strong need for screening. There has to be a solution somehow.
Agreed! Agreed! Agreed! This is a very real situation.... Quoted from Kris "When we can obtain documentation of a learning disability, then that student can receive services appropriate to the disability. But when we cannot obtain documentation, then we have an inmate with an apparent disability but we tell him that he is not entitled to receive any services and he is left to sink or swim as best as he can." "One example of how this complicates education for our students is in GED testing. A students with a learning disabiilty may request accommodations on the GED test. In order to obtain accommodations, the GED candidate is required to provide documentation of recent scores on specific psychoeducational tests. Yet it is impossible for the inmate to obtain accommodations for a learning disability on the GED test because the inmate has no access to the testing that is required."

Hi Kris, Jen, Brant, and Steve,

Kris mentioned the GED.  The following questions for the guest speakers were posted by our group members weeks in advance of this discussion.  If you could answer these questions, our members will appreciate it.

    How does the process of requesting accommodations for the GED Testing work in correctional facilities?


   What is the passing rate for students in your programs that receive accommodations on the GED Tests?

Thanks so much,

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Hi Rochelle,

Being able to attain GED accommodations whether in or out of custody is a beast all on its own. As mentioned in another post, obtaining accommodations must come from a psychiatrist or a medical doctor. This process is difficult and it is something we have not completely figured out. With the new GED test, it can only be taken online and to get approval for a paper version is close to impossible. Here is a link to the guidelines

Five Keys provides GED testing outside of the jail, we currently do not do GED test in custody. One a person is released, they can take the GED for free at our community locations.

However, I can say we've seen a significant reduction in passing rates with the new GED. This seems to be a common experience with other GED programs. We are beginning to look at the HiSET instead of the GED for both correctional settings and in the community.

It is always difficult to obtain special accommodations, especially as an adult.  We are still in the process of rolling out the new GED in the prisons.  Each of our 35 institutions were given a January 1, 2015 deadline to begin testing, so our data is still inconclusive as to passing rate, especially for those with learning disabilities.  So far, we have only given a couple of hundred tests and only a few have passed the complete battery.  GED services are doing a good job providing training for our teachers to help them with the curricular changes. 

We will be implementing the HISET exam in the near future to accommodate a portion of our special population, including those in special housing units and high security administrative segregated areas where computers are cumbersome. 


My response to your question is not as an administrator but as a teacher in the trenches. We can successfully request accommodations for physical disabilities. For example, for a student with a mobility impairment who cannot sit for long periods of time, we got supervised breaks during which the student laid down on a mattress to rest. We have access to medical personnel at the institution who can certify that the accommodations we are requesting are reasonable and necessary. However, I have never, ever even tried to apply for accommodations for a learning disability. There are no personnel at the institution or even outside the institution whom the State will pay to administer the required psychoeducational tests and recommend appropriate accommodations. I cannot address the passing rate of those who receive accommodations as it has honestly been a very long time since I have done it.

Hi Ted,

My years as a classroom teacher taught me that without a student feeling safe in my classroom there was no reaching them. They need to know I was genuine, they needed to know that their mistakes weren't going to be chastised, they needed routine and structure, they needed boundaries with room to push, and they needed to know that I believed in them. 

The other aspect of motivation I see is the understanding of their place in the world. If you define your life (or had you life defined for you) and education is not part of that definition, why go to school. Why go to high school if you don't think you are valued? Why go if the only path being offered is college and all you want to do is get a job to help your family? Building a love and appreciation of learning is a big job but one that has to be a goal. 

It is difficult to hold dialectical opposing truths: the hope that your individual student will beat the odds and knowing the statistics are all too real. It's a hard place to be as a teacher and one that requires active self care. 


Back to my earlier comment... inmates who participate in CBT and substance abuse programs are often better suited and "softened" to the idea of school.  They need to believe in themselves before they can be successful in school.  School also needs to be exciting and engaging.  News of a good teacher will spread around the yard very quickly. 

A year ago, I entered a dormitory full of 90 gang members incarcerated in the LA County Jails... shirtless, tatted, and muscular.  They were very curious that I entered without any security.  I sat down at their table and asked them if they wanted school programs for their dorm.  They told me NO!  I asked them if they wanted a class in fatherhood.  For some reason... they liked that idea.  We started teaching classes in fatherhood and within 6 months we had converted the whole dorm to school with no jail politics.  Sometimes you have to involve the inmates to make them feel like they are in charge. They also need to trust you.  Trust can be difficult to earn when they are used to all other authority figures verbally beating them down. 


Good Afternoon – The Career Technical Education (CTE), Computer Literacy, Internet and Computing Core Certification (IC3) course that I teach through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has a very significant built-in incentive/motivator for its students. Qualified students who complete the course earn what is called a milestone, which takes two weeks off their sentence. If students go on to take and pass the IC3 Certification Exam, they earn an additional two weeks off their sentence, for a total of up to one month! So in addition to my students having the opportunity to make themselves more employable (motivator), by obtaining computer skills, they also have the opportunity to earn time off their sentence – an amazing incentive. For teachers who do not have this sort of built-in incentive/motivator in their class, when speaking with their students they should try to accentuate the following: the skills and knowledge students can acquire from the class; the statistical decrease in prison recidivism for educated inmates/parolees; as well as how the class will help to make them much more employable upon their release. These should prove to be efficacious motivators. Hope this helps!

Hi Adrian,

Welcome to our Disabilities in Adult Education group - and thank you for posting this interesting message. You have clearly explained a motivator that I was not familiar with.   Your other suggestions may be helpful to our readers too.

Where do you teach?

Rochelle Kenyon, Subject Matter Expert



Thank you for the information about milestones.  Wouldn't it be nice if students came to our classes with no need for extrinsic motivators?  I would think that the opportunity to work on a computer is enough of a motivator.  Do you have much of a waiting list for your class? 


Hi group members,

We have had such good participation by teachers working in Corrections facilities that it makes me wonder how many of our members are employed in secure environments.

I have started a poll that asks the question: How many group members work/teach in a state or federal correctional institution or regional jail?

Click on the Poll tab to answer either Yes or No to the poll question.

Thanks very much,

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Hi MBautista,

Thanks for clarifying the location of the Correctional Professionals Poll.  I thought I could set up the poll within both groups, but I didn't get that option,  For Correctional Educators that are not members of the Disabilities Group, thanks in advance for joining and completing the poll.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME

Disabilities in Adult Education Group


Hello all,

Thank you to our wonderful speakers, Dr. Brant Choate, Steve Good, and Jen Zamora for a highly informative guest discussion this week.  Not only did you answer all of our members' questions, but you discussed other topics of interest and shared information about some of California's Correctional facilities.  I appreciate all your expertise, knowledge, and the time you spent to plan and present this event.

Thank you, too, to our group members who posted questions, comments, misc., to enhance the discussion including Pamela Shrestha, David Ramirez, Kathy Tracey, Kris Szovati, Hillary Iserman, Kim Weikel, Jennifer Wynn, John Linton, Stephen Steurer, Christine, Ted Oparnico, Adrian Simmons, and MBautista.

I hope that members of both the Disabilities in Adult Education and Correctional Education groups enjoyed and benefited from this event.

Rochelle Kenyon, Subject Matter Expert