The Washington Post

A Maryland man

Donte Small began taking courses while behind bars. He continued his studies after being released. Next, he gets his degree.

- BY NICK ANDERSON

who began his college studies six years ago in prison is set to graduate from Goucher College.

Six years ago, two prison cellmates became, to their surprise, college roommates. Donte Small was doing time at Maryland Correction­al Institutio­n in Jessup for assault with a handgun. Sanford Barber was in for involuntar­y manslaught­er. Both were looking constantly to improve themselves.

One day, Barber saw a flier advertisin­g college courses. He signed them both up to apply. They had to interview and write letters to get in. Small wondered: “Could I make it in college? Is this possible? Is this really a thing?”

They were accepted for Goucher College’s inaugural classes at Jessup in 2012. The two men proofed each other’s papers, talked about assignment­s, took turns at an improvised desk in the cell with a toilet seat as the chair.

They sought, Barber said, “to motivate each other, uplift each other.” In one class they studied the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and involuntar­y servitude, and poncouldn’t dered the exception in it that permitted incarcerat­ion for a criminal conviction. “Blew my mind when I read it,” Small said.

Now out of prison, the two reunited this week on the leafy Goucher campus in the suburbs north of Baltimore to celebrate an unusual prison-to-college story: Small is about to graduate from the liberal arts school with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

The 29-year-old from Baltimore County, released in 2014, will don a cap and gown Friday and participat­e in all the pomp that Goucher bestows on its Class of 2018. He has finished his school work except for a short trip next month to fulfill a study-abroad requiremen­t. Small said he wants to “push, challenge and change the narrative about individual­s with a criminal past.”

The path Small followed, starting with a college behind bars and finishing on its main campus, is not unpreceden­ted. But experts say very few are able to do it.

“It’s tragically rare in the United States,” said Max Kenner, executive director of a prison education initiative at Bard College in New York and an authority on the issue.

“It’s unusual mostly because of a lack of imaginatio­n,” Goucher President José Antonio Bowen said. “It’s the right thing for the country.”

In 1994, Congress approved a ban on federal Pell Grant funding for higher education in prison, leading many programs to shrink or shut down. But in recent years, inmates have secured more opportunit­ies to earn college credit.

Goucher started offering courses for credit to men and women at two state prisons in Jessup six years ago, using private money and joining a small group of four-year colleges and universiti­es with similar efforts.

Momentum for these initiative­s grew in 2016 with the launch of a federal experiment supporting prison education at dozens of colleges through Pell Grants. Among the participan­ts are Goucher, Bard, Rutgers, Villanova, Auburn and the University of Baltimore.

Advocates hope results from the Second Chance Pell program will spur Congress to repeal the 1994 ban. Their arguments are humanitari­an, social and fiscal: They cite research showing that education substantia­lly lowers the probabilit­y that prisoners will return to crime after they are released. The state can pay major costs for incarcerat­ion of repeat offenders.

“There is a growing bipartisan understand­ing that the right thing for the country is to make sure that while folks are incarcerat­ed, they have the opportunit­y to gain additional education and skills,” said John B. King Jr., who as education secretary in the final year of the Obama administra­tion oversaw the experiment’s launch.

Department of Education spokeswoma­n Elizabeth Hill said the Trump administra­tion plans to continue the experiment until it yields enough informatio­n for the government to set longerterm policy. The New York Times quoted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in February as saying that reinstatin­g Pell Grants for prisoners was “a very good and interestin­g possibilit­y.”

Villanova has taught inside a state prison in Graterford, Pa., for decades. Seventy-five men have earned bachelor’s or associate degrees since 1986, usually finishing while incarcerat­ed, according to program director Kate Meloney. The diplomas carry no asterisk. “This is not a charity, not something we’re doing out of the goodness of our hearts,” Meloney said.

Small said he is amazed at how college turned around his life.

Born in the Bronx and raised by a single mother, he attended five high schools in three states before receiving a diploma in 2007 in Baltimore County. College was not unknown to him: His mother is a teacher with a master’s degree in special education. But it was far from his mind. “I wasn’t offered college tours,” he said. “I wasn’t put in college prep. I didn’t feel confident in my writing, my reading, my arithmetic skills.” His last report card shows a string of D’s.

Small got a job in a shoe store, but six months after high school graduation, he fell into trouble. He said his neighborho­od felt unsafe. His house was broken into repeatedly. He felt a need to protect himself and his family. “It led me to start making bad decisions,” he said. One day he pulled a gun, he said, and shot someone in the shoulder.

Then came the arrest, jail, a guilty plea, prison.

“When I got there,” Small said, “I was like, ‘ This has happened. What’s next?’ ”

He stayed busy, working in a mechanic shop, and in graphic arts. He took an anger management program, studied Spanish. He hungered to improve his reading and writing skills and raise his career ambitions.

So he jumped at the chance to take free courses from Goucher. The first two, in English and political philosophy, pushed him hard. He wrote two papers a week in each subject and marveled at how much professors demanded. He was proud to earn a pair of B’s.

“They were not playing,” he recalled. “Not giving us any kind of break at all.”

Goucher cut no slack for Small, Barber and the other students even though they were under tighter restrictio­ns than other freshmen face, with no Internet access, no cellphones and a controlled daily routine behind razor wire. But the professors provided regular office hours inside. Classes were small, discussion­s in- tense. Small said a favorite course was introducti­on to theater, exposing him to texts, playwright­s and stage directions. “It made me interested in art,” he said.

Barber, 30, who was released last year, said the college courses changed his life, too. “It was definitely a steppingst­one,” he said. He took his Goucher credits to Pasco-Hernando State College in Florida and plans to earn an associate degree in informatio­n technology and then transfer to the University of South Florida. He flew to Baltimore this week to congratula­te Small.

When Small left prison after a little more than six years, he had 27 credits toward 120 needed for a bachelor’s degree. He enrolled briefly at a community college to aim for a two-year associate degree. But professors he had met at Jessup urged him to come to Goucher to finish a bachelor’s. With grants and loans, he did.

He will graduate with about $36,000 in student debt that he expects to pay off after getting a job. He said he believes that his computer science degree, with a minor in sociology, will give him marketable skills. His transcript is loaded with A’s and B’s.

Jill Zimmerman, a computer science professor who advised Small, said she has never met a student like him. Zimmerman said she was aware that Small had been in prison but that the subject never came up in three years of working with him. He was all business, she said, focused on computer languages, computatio­ns, algorithms.

“He always wanted insight from me on what I saw when I looked at a problem,” she said. “He did great — in spite of any deficienci­es he may have had in his previous education — just because of his work ethic and diligence.”

Small said he soaked up everything he could from professors. If he knew that Zimmerman would be available in her office at 8 a.m., he said, he might be there at 7 a.m. waiting outside her door.

After commenceme­nt, Small will travel with classmates in June for three weeks to the Caribbean island of Curacao to wrap up his Goucher work. He also wants to provide guidance to a younger brother who’s nearing the end of high school. “That's my next task, to get him collegerea­dy,” he said.

 ?? PHOTOS BY MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS BY MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST
 ??  ?? TOP: Donte Small, right, embraces his former cellmate Sanford Barber on the campus of Goucher College in Towson, Md. The pair studied together in prison. ABOVE: Small, 29, will be graduating Friday with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
TOP: Donte Small, right, embraces his former cellmate Sanford Barber on the campus of Goucher College in Towson, Md. The pair studied together in prison. ABOVE: Small, 29, will be graduating Friday with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
 ?? SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST ??
SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST
 ?? MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Donte Small turns in his final exam Tuesday to professor Jill Zimmerman at Goucher College. Small served a little more than six years in prison at the Maryland Correction­al Institutio­n in Jessup, top, where he began taking courses toward the bachelor’s...
MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST Donte Small turns in his final exam Tuesday to professor Jill Zimmerman at Goucher College. Small served a little more than six years in prison at the Maryland Correction­al Institutio­n in Jessup, top, where he began taking courses toward the bachelor’s...

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