YACOLT — Posted on the walls in the Larch Corrections Center’s education building are photos of inmates, beaming in blue caps and gowns.
These are men who have earned their General Educational Development certificates, or GEDs. These are the men who came first.
In a nearby classroom, other men in beige and burgundy uniforms huddle over textbooks and worksheets. These are the men who hope to come next.
Clark College’s GED program at Larch Corrections Center is a cornerstone of the educational offerings at the 480-inmate prison. For many, it means more than passing the four-part test, earning the equivalent of a high school diploma. It means becoming a better partner, a better father, a better man. It means opening job opportunities, earning degrees — and never winding up back here again.
The Columbian spent three days over two weeks at Larch Corrections Center talking to students, their tutors and their teachers.
One of them was Howard Seaworth, who, when we first visited, was just one successful test away from completing his GED.
“This is the start of a new beginning for me,” he said.
A unique certification
On May 14, students were working through practice GED worksheets and questions with peer tutors.
Clark College recently received international recognition for its GED tutoring program at Larch, which pairs inmates preparing to take their tests with trained peer tutors. The program is now certified by the College Reading and Learning Association, which recognizes tutor-training programs across the globe.
It may be the only prison-based program to have received the certification.
GED teacher Lauren Zavrel spent long hours applying for the recognition after working with inmate teaching assistants for several years. She recognized the rapport the TAs were able to build with students, and she wanted to take that a step further. She started the lengthy application process last summer, working closely with inmates to develop the tutor-training curriculum.
They learned on May 2 that the program had been certified.
“These guys, they really want you to be successful,” said Joseph Jazwiec, a student in Zavrel’s class. “We all have a DOC number. They’re not better than me, and I’m not better than them.”
Timothy Tipton is one of Zavrel’s recently certified TAs. He’s eager and ready to drop a pep talk at a moment’s notice. He’s getting out on June 17, and he plans to enroll in Clark College. He already has a job when he arrives, helping mentor new students at the Vancouver campus.
“We all have similar backgrounds,” Tipton said of his students. “We have the distinct opportunity of living with the people we tutor. It provides me a sense of community.”
‘Make something better for himself’
On this day, Tipton sits with Chris Turner, encouraging him through the day’s work. Turner has dyslexia, a learning disability can make it difficult to read and spell.
“I’ve read 15 books,” says Turner, a note of pride in his voice. He’s been reading “White Fang,” the Jack London classic, at the same time as his child.
“It’s cool to have a conversation with my kid about a book they’re reading,” he says. “I’m a lot smarter than I give myself credit for.”
Tipton grins. That’s what he’s talking about.
“He’s in here busting his ass, trying to make something better for himself,” he says.
Tory Fletcher, another certified peer tutor and a black man, says he is particularly motivated to work with men of color. He said he can do more because he has that shared experience and connection with his students.
“I’m trying to break that stereotype that education is not for them,” Fletcher said.
Nearby, Seaworth is running through practice problems for his upcoming math exam. He plans on becoming a tutor, and he’s optimistic that, in two days, he’ll get that GED certificate. That’s in no small part thanks to the help he’s had from classroom tutors.
“The time he spends day in and day out,” he says of Tipton, who was nearby. “That’s what I love about this program. It’s helped me get through these humps and these hurdles.”
Zavrel, meanwhile, is focused on her latest goal. She wants to break the record for the number of Larch inmates to pass their GED in a single school year.
The record is 46. As of this day, 44 have passed.
Three left to go.
‘What it’s like to feel powerless’
“Oh my God, I’m so nervous,” said Zavrel. “I’m, like, freaking out.”
It’s Thursday, May 16. Two days have passed. Zavrel was trying, and failing, to relax. In a few minutes, the test results will come through, and she’ll know if enough GED students passed to beat the record.
Zavrel is an anxious, high-energy woman. She takes this work seriously. Her students call her Ms. Z, and say she’s relatable, that she’s the best GED teacher they’ve ever had. She says she’s unwilling to let them give up.
“I don’t play,” said Zavrel. “I teach GED like it’s a crisis, because it is.”
Zavrel completed a bachelor’s degree in 2005, but wandered afterward. She tended bar for a time, and she managed a storage facility.
“That feeling of not knowing who I was and not knowing my place in the world played a big role for me,” she says. “After college, I had a hard time because I had low self-worth and lacked a sense of direction for my life.”
Then, in 2006, Zavrel took a motorcycle safety class. During the 2 1/2 day program, her instructor pointed at her and told her she should teach. She spent nearly 10 years teaching motorcycle classes with Team Oregon, and said it the most positive part of her life during her “tumultuous and crazy 20s.”
“That was the first really obvious time in my work life that somebody pointed to me and said, ‘You’re capable of this,’ ” she says. “It’s not beyond me how transformative that moment was for me.”
Around 2010, Zavrel read “Couldn’t Keep It to Myself,” a collection of short stories by incarcerated women at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. Women wrote about their trauma, abuse and rejection. It was a wake-up call for Zavrel, who was struck by the humanity in their stories.
“I know what it’s like to feel powerless,” Zavrel says.
She returned to school for her master’s degree, combining her love for adult education with her newfound passion for corrections education. She taught GED classes in the Clackamas County Jail, then landed her full-time position at Clark College in 2016.
An inmate in Clackamas told her something once, she says.
“We’re your people, Ms. Z,” she remembers him saying. “You may not be our people, but we’re your people.”
“I know what it’s like to be looked at and be assumed incapable or assumed that I have bad intentions because I dress a certain way or talk a certain way,” Zavrel said. “When I show them, ‘I see you, and you’re allowed to scream expletives at the universe,’ they start to trust me a little more.”
The results have arrived. They’re not what Zavrel hoped. Only one tester passed.
“Only one. One out of three,” she said.
“Yeah, but look who it is,” said her fellow GED teacher, Steve Smith. “It’s Ibarra. That’s a win, Lauren.”
Antonio Ibarra of Vancouver didn’t seem likely to pass. He hadn’t passed a practice exam yet, but insisted he could do the real thing.
“I talked to my son last week, and he said he took a math test, and I told him I was going to take mine,” Ibarra says. His son is 11. “I told him to encourage me. I encouraged him.”
When a student completes his GED, he gets to put on a cap and gown, hold up a diploma holder and take a photo in front of a Clark College banner. One copy is for him. The other is for the wall.
Ibarra looks awkward with all this attention, but he grins anyway. For a minute, he’s not an inmate. He’s a graduate, laughing and smiling along with his friends and teachers.
“The thing that we fight every day is the idea that somehow your felony has limited your future,” says Smith. “But I don’t believe that. Lauren doesn’t believe that. None of us who teach up here believe that a felony has to define what the trajectory of your future looks like. If it did, we wouldn’t be here.”
Seaworth, who’d been so confident just two days previously, didn’t receive the same good news. Zavrel holds out a spreadsheet of names and scores. He was just a few points shy of a pass.
“So close,” Zavrel tells him.
“That’s all right,” said Seaworth. “That’s all right. Next time.”
“Next time” for Seaworth will be in two weeks.
‘Better things for me’
Zavrel paces her small office. Two weeks have passed. It’s May 30.
Hanan Al-Zubaidy, a corrections education navigator tasked with helping students plan for their education after they’re released, watches her computer. Any minute now, Al-Zubaidy will be the first person in the room to get the scores.
Suddenly, a grin spreads across Al-Zubaidy’s face, but she doesn’t tell Zavrel anything. It’s a fun game they play.
Well, it’s fun for Al-Zubaidy. Not so much for Zavrel.
“Can I get out the camera?” Zavrel asks.
“Yes,” Al-Zubaidy replies.
After a few agonizing minutes, Al-Zubaidy passes Zavrel a copy of the scores. What Zavrel says next can’t be printed in this newspaper, but it’s good news.
They broke their record. Three inmates passed; 48 students have graduated this school year.
“What?! This is so awesome!” she said as she stares at the spreadsheet. She holds the paperwork to her face, tears in her eyes, and dances in a circle. She grabs the diploma holder, cap and gown, takes a deep breath, and turns to share the scores.
Among the new graduates is Seaworth. He shouts and envelops Tipton, his main tutor, in a giant bear hug.
Seaworth was 15 when he dropped out of high school. He grew up in Tacoma in a “low-class neighborhood,” he says. After his parents divorced, he started running in the wrong crowd. Like many of these men, he’s in here for drug-related crimes.
“It’s only going to mean better things for me,” Seaworth says. “I wouldn’t have taken the test if it hadn’t been for these tutors here. If I can do this, I can do anything.”
Tipton sits nearby, rocking back and forth in a chair, taking it all in with a smile.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Tipton said. “Words don’t describe how I feel.”
On Friday, two more inmates received their GEDs.