Special Discussion featuring -- Take Charge of Your Future: Get the Education and Training You Need -- Toolkit Author Michelle Tolbert

Hello Members and welcome to this special discussion of the newly released Take Charge of Your Future:  Get the Education and Training You Need toolkit.  I hope this finds you all healthy and whole after the devastating storm, Hurricane Sandy, passed through the East Coast and caused initial delay of this program.

Michelle Tolbert of MPR Associates and author of the Toolkit, will moderate this discussion and will be available to take questions throughout the session.  Please take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to learn about this amazing resource and how best we as Correctional Education Professionals can put it to good use. Thank you, Michelle, and welcome!


Hello Members.  I’m looking forward to this discussion.  I also would like to welcome Luis Garcia and John Gordon, who will be contributing to the discussion as well.

Luis is an amazing example of the power of education.  He earned his high school diploma while incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jail System and is now working towards the completion of an Ed.D Educational Leadership for Social Justice Doctorate from Loyola Marymount University while employed full-time as a Program Analyst for a public mental health agency in Los Angeles County. He is one of the student profiles included in Take Charge of Your Future.

John was the director of Open Book, a community based literacy program in Brooklyn, for 16 years. Since 2001, he has been at the Fortune Society, an organization dedicated to supporting successful reentry from prison and promoting alternatives to incarceration. John came to Fortune as Director of its Education program. Since 2007, he has been an Associate Vice President of Programs.  This work includes overseeing Fortune’s Employment Services and Transitional Services programs, along with its Admissions unit.

As noted in the announcement for this discussion, Take Charge of Your Future:  Get the Education and Training You Need is a guide designed for people who are incarcerated and for those on community supervision. It will help them get started—or continue—on the path to further education and training.  It covers the steps involved in setting goals, getting orga­nized, finding employment, and pursuing an education, from a high school credential to a college diploma. It also provides advice about getting money to pay for college. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, go to http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/AdultEd/take-charge-your-future.pdf

The guide is based on an earlier guide, Back to School: A Guide to Continuing Your Education After Prison, written by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

Have any of you used either the earlier guide or Take Charge of Your Future?  If so, how have you used it?  What information in the guide did you find most helpful?

Hello Michelle, 

Thank you for the introduction. Yes, I have used used the Back To School: A Guide to Continuing Your Education After Prison extensively over the course of the past several years. I have used the 2007 version when I was employed as a Subtance Abuse Program Director for an HIV-AIDS advocacy non-profit in South Central Los Angeles. Specifically, for an HIV-HEP C prevention program targeting LGBT reentry populations. Primarily, we used the "Gathering Identification", the "Pathway" visual, and Financial Aid for Drug Convictions sections. At the end of the program sessions, part of our responsibility was to encourage linkages to educational opportunities in the community ( GED, Adult School, Voc, Community College). The guide was tremendously helpful in assisting us!  

I have also used the updated 2010 version extensively inside state prisons through my involvement with the Prison Education Project (PEP) sponsored by Cal Poly Pomona University that commenced in the fall of 2011. As part of a PEP Career Development Module, I have brought in copies for the correctional education prinicipals to distribute to the inmates at the California Institution for Men (CIM) State Prison, the California Rehabilitation Center - Norco and the California Institution for Women (CIW). I have pulled information from just about every section of the guide during the Career Development Modules. As I recall from our spring sessions, the Financial Aid section was very helpful to the inmates. In addition, understanding the types of academic programs, understanding the importance of accreditation sections (staying away from diploma mills) were also very helpful in our presentations/discussions with the inmates.     

As for the newer Take Charge of Your Future guide, l recently used Chapter 2 to discuss to the female inmates at CIW participating in the fall 2012 PEP sessions.  In the upcoming weeks, I will be using various sections of the guide. The Assistant Principal really liked the guide, and will be making copies for the inmates. 

Thanks, Luis, for sharing how you've used the guide in your work.  You mention that at the end of your program sessions, part of your responsibility is to encourage linkages to educational opportunities in the community.  As many of you know, the transition from incarceration to the community can be very challenging.  Can you tell us more, Luis and others, about how you help your students continue their education once released?


I forgot to add, prior to my current employment I worked as Mental Health social worker with co-ocurring disoder ("dual diagnosed") state parolees in what was called an "In-Custody" Drug Treatment (ICDTP) Facility operated by a contractor for the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabiltiation. The ICDTP  setting is a 90 day community based program that state parolees participated rather than return to custody (RTC).  In this setting, I would use the guide to assist clients that were on my caseload who were desiring as part of their treatment/transition plan to attend LA Trade Technical College or other local community colleges--or to get thier GED.  Specifically, the guide assisted my efforts 1) because I was able to create rapport with my student profile and the others that were provided. The diverse examples inspired the men.  2) Since the clients I was assisting were living with mental health issues, the guide assisted me in educating the client to connect with the appropiate educational support services. Importantly, the guide assisted me in encouraging the clients who were enrolling in the local schools to use the public community college rather than the private online universities. This was huge! Since so many of the men had a desire to go to college and enroll in either an academic or a vocational program, some still had a ways to go in stabilizing thier life situation. I recall, how some of the men I worked with would send for information from one of the leading private online universities and the savvy marketing material they recieved would make them "feel important". I recall I had a long conversation with one parolee who was perplexed in what to do, choose the "slow" community college or the "fast track" private online university. Eventually, he selected LA Trade Tech because he did not want to take out student loans. 3) Also, the guide assisted with the men who had a strong desire to attend trade schools. I would encounter parolees recieving marketing material with promises of great incomes, simple enrollment, and financial aid to support. I used to attend a monthly orientation for state parolees that would provide short presentations from various social service providers/schools to recently released parolees. I recall, how one automotive mechanic trade school was very agresssive. Guys would come back with "stars" in thier eyes etc. As with the clients who desired to attend community college, the guide was very helpful in allowing me to explain  the financial aid process and educating the men on the grants, scholarships, Perkins loans and Stafford loans and student loan default.  

Very important to note that the guide was helpful in so many ways because it contextualized my assistance under pursuing higher education. Every person I worked with wanted to "shed" thier past and attend school to "move forward" . They did not want to go into the school setting and have to tell anyone of their past incarceration etc.if they really did not need to. That's where I was really able to share my experience and coach them how to navigate through their experience. That's what's also really nice in the new Take Charge of Your Future guide. It broadens their horizon and contextualizes higher education (just by the very title) as a path out of their past...

My colleague Zina Watkins and I here at OVAE had the great pleasure of working with Michelle Tolbert on this project.  Michelle and her colleagues at MPR Associates brought their considerable knowledge and skills to this project with a strong commitment to making it the best possible resource, and we are pleased and proud of the product.  Based on recent requests and other inqueries, interest is building rapidly.  Yesterday we received a request for multiple copies from a Congressional office.  And thanks to Luis for your positive comment, and your great assistance with this project and others. 

Prisoner Reentry is a topic that seems to attract ever increasong attention in communities, State capitals, and of course here in Washington, DC.  Unsustainable rates of incarceration are in everyone's interest to resolve, and to a great extent, our incarceration problem is a reincarceration problem.  We all want to see improved reentry outcomes. 

Given the over-representation of school drop outs in correctional populations, education is clearly a key resource for persons who want to reach out and grab a "second chance."  In fact, education is the most cited resource when incarcerated persons are asked about their personal reentry needs.  But once having turned away from formal schooling -- how to get back on the education track?  That isn't necessarily obvious or easy. 

This guide is written as a piece to stimulate thinking and to help persons identify and commit to the practical steps necessary to move forward with education.  It is written from the perspective of the prospective student, but many various types of case workers and helpers -- parents, mentors, friends, parole agents and etc. -- have indicated that they need this information.  Hopefully, it is provided in a format that will help both different types of users, and facilitate constructive conversations across groups -- leading to individual commitment and action.  

Michelle referenced the prior publication "Back to School: A Guide to Continuing Your Education after Prison."  That document (itself a "best seller" at ED's free materials distribution center EDPubs) was focused on the incarcerated person contemplating return to community status.  The new publication speaks to a broader population, including those involved with the criminal justice system who might be in an alternative to incarceration program, such as a community corrections placement or a sentnece of probation.  So perhaps this "intervention" can assist individuals prior to a "deep dive" into the criminal justice system.  We hope so!

We know that this publication will be enthusiastically received in corrections -- but we'll be particularly interested in hearing to what extent and how it is accepted and viewed in community based programs.  Is this resource supporting criminal justice system involved youth and adults who are out of school to be encouraged and supported to re-engage with educational institutions, programs, and opportunities?  This publication should be one tool used by educators and their allies to realize the potential of education to achieve reentry success.     

By the way, if you'd like to get a printed copy, they will be sent free upon request from EDPubs -- just call 1-877-4ED-PUBS and request by title. 


Thanks, John, for providing some background on the publication.  Like John, I'm also curious to hear how this publication or other education resources are used by community-based programs serving individuals on parole or probation.  As we know, individuals under community supervision often do not persist in education and training programs for a variety of reasons, including competing demands (e.g., employment) and lack of personal motiviation (possibly because they had bad experiences with education in the past).  Many others do not even enroll.

How do you keep your students motivated?  How do you help them juggle their various responsibilities?  And, how has or can Take Charge of Your Future help you with this?

Hello All. Here in Iowa's Sixth Judicial District we have a very progressive non-profit boot-strapped to the District called the Community Corrections Improvement Association (CCIA). This organization works closely with the Sixth District and Kirkwood Community College to provide educational resources and opportunities for those on probation and parole. A lot of clients come to CCIA saying they don't know what the next step is after incarceration, what the next thing they could do is, beyond returning to their old neighborhood and their old habbits. We try to provide access to information that allows for the vision of something beyond what's behind them. The toolkit is a great resource for those looking to find and take the next step. It lists solid, concrete actions to take to move from where you are, into school and on with a better life. Once the path is clear before you it's so much easier to undertake something new and daunting like higher ed classes or vocational training. We haven't utilized the toolkit a great deal up to this point, but it will definitely be a highly recommended resource in the future.

Hi all. My apologies for taking so long to get on this conversation. As you can imagine, things have been pretty crazy here in New York. Email and internet service at the Fortune Society where I work went down during the storm and was not restored until late yesterday afternoon.

Here at Fortune we work with with people after they've come home from prison or jail and others who come through the courts and are engaged in an our Alternative to Incarceration programs. We have the luxury of sharing space with a small sister organization called The College Initiative (CI) which works specifically with folks in reentry to help them get into college and succeed once they're there. New York City is also home to the College and Community Fellowship (CCF), which works specifically with women applying for and already enrolled in college. 

CI and CCF help people navigate the complexities of figuring out which schools to apply for and accessing the financial aid system. They help people prepare for the placement exams, and they provide critical support - often through peer mentoring - to students once they are enrolled. Many of the staff are formerly incarcerated, and they understand the complicated City University system very well. They do great work, so when students in our education program get their High School Equivalency, we just take them down the hall and introduce them to the College Initiative folks (whom they've probably already met). 

One of my biggest concerns, addressed in several places in the guide, is how often people get sucked into proprietary schools that use up their financial aid and offer substandard education and often leave them in debt with nothing to show for it. These schools have proliferated here in New York, and I am constantly meeting people, both staff and students, who are taken in by the lure of an easy path to a college degree. The Mayor's Office of Adult Education in NYC has developed a campaign with good resources around the proprietary schools. The campaign is called, "Know Before You Enroll." You can see it here. There are stories and posters available for download.


Hi John.  Thanks for taking time to join the convesation, especially given the terrible impact Hurricane Sandy has had on New York. 

You make an excellent point about the challenges presented by proprietary schools. Does anyone else have expereinces with proprietary schools they would like to share?  And, more importantly, how do you help your students become educated consumers of higher education?

Hi Michelle.  Proprietary schools, in my experience, have been a challenge in my work with a cross sector of the people I work with. These schools may work for some people who are in a well establised career and for career advancement an advanceed degree would benefit their salary scale. However, in general, what I am experiencing is very agressive marketing to people (particularly young 18-25) year olds. While at USC, I participated in USC School of Education "Increasing Access Mentoring Program for first generation Hispanic/Latino students at a LA Unified Magnet school. One of my mentees, desired to attend an Art School. So we contacted them for information etc. I made the huge mistake of requesting information. One cannot imagine how many phone calls, emails I recieved from this school!

In addition to this experience, I have encountered persons who have begun to attend a proprietary school, decide they want to attend a public, traditional school, only to find out their classes were not transferrable. Now they are stuck with the loans they took out; not to mention the replication of coursework! I can go on and on about the challenges I have seen in my diverse experiences. The link that John shared of what NYC is doing is great! I have not seen anything like that here in Los Angeles County.

To answer your last question, it has been my experience, I stress the importance of reading the "fine print" (buyer beware) for those who I encounter who desire to attend a proprietary schools. As an MSW, one of our values of the profession is client self-determination. I stress understanding how earning this degree would be in relation to their future advancement. Can they later attend a public or private university for a Master's post-graduation? What is the accreditation of the school? Can they recieve a similiar education at their local community college for less? I really try to encourage them to look beyond the "immediate" and to mirror what others have successfully accomplished. Practical example, I am not sure we will see a UCLA or USC M.D. with a proprietary school undergraduate degree in the near future. Ultimately, the decision is their own so I do my best to assist them to make an informed decision as they pursue their dreams!

Connecting all of this to the Take Charge guide, I can see the evolution of the guide from the earlier versions, and I can really see the value of using it as tool to educate a broader population.


I am enjoying this discussion list!

As I see it, "Take Charge" has been well received by those interested in reentry. In fact, ED Pubs recently received a bulk order for the publication from a congressional office! We are so proud of the publication and the work that MPR (special thanks to Michelle!) and others  have provided to improve it.