Sept. 21, 2011: For the past 87 years the the Cook County Jail has been graduating inmates from a high school run by the Chicago Public School system.
The Chicago Public School system is spending approximately twice as much to educate students in the Cook County Jail as opposed to students in traditional schools.
According to figures released by CPS, $7.5 million was budgeted to educate roughly 300 student-inmates at Consuella B. York Alternative school, housed within the confines of the jail.
In some respects it’s like any other Chicago public high school. To enter, one must have an ID and walk through a metal detector. But once inside, the student body is captive and the teachers committed.
"It took me to come back to jail to really want to go back to school," said 20-year-old Jasmine McClain, who is awaiting trial on a drug possession charge.
McClain has her GED but hopes to earn her high school diploma.
"We've had students who've graduated from DeVry," said Principal Brenetta Glass. "We’ve had students who have graduated from Loyola and DePaul and who are gainfully employed."
But when comes to exact graduation percentages, Glass admits they can be hard to calculate in that environment.
"Some of the young men who come in here will be here for a day [or] a month. Some of them will be here for a couple of years," said Glass, who has worked at York for the past 16 years.
Attendance is voluntary at the school, which has been graduating inmates between the ages of 17 to 21 for nearly nine decades.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said he doesn’t see a high graduation rate out of the current jail school system. There have been 204 inmates to graduate from York since 2002, according to figures released by the sheriff's department.
With an annual budget of between $7 and $7.5 million, the cost average per diploma for the last three years is $184,000. Dart believes, citing figures going back to 2002, the cost rises to over $300,000.
Still, he said he believes the bigger issue is linked to the targeting of one inmate population over another. Those who allegedly commit more serious crimes stay locked up and can benefit the most from going to class.
"The people with the lowest offense, who are going right back out into the community, we are skipping," said Dart. "And that does not make sense to me."
Glass claims that the school system chooses to look at those enrolled as students and not by their sentence.
"Our job is just to educate," she said. "I look at them as students, not at their sentence."
A spokeswoman for new schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said he is happy to sit down with Dart "to discuss innovative ideas that will best serve our students."
There are 55 teachers currently working in the jail. For the past two years, John Boggs has been teaching inmates on a variety of reading levels.
"I’ve got 9.6 -- which means ninth grade, sixth month," he explained. "But then I've also got fourth grade, fifth month [and] first grade, ninth month. So as a teacher, we really have to make sure we are hitting each of those areas."
While Boggs loves the fact that he has a "captive audience," teaching classes of up to 12 students can be hard work.
"I go home and I’m tired," said Boggs. "These are tough kids."
Regardless of the challenges, one thing everyone can agree on is the value of potential reward.
Student-inmate Armanda Wilson sees York as a way to accomplish what she could not before.
"It’s given me a second chance at life to be a better person, to change my life around," she said.