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For these incarcerated women, high school diplomas offer hope

Women wearing navy graduation gowns throw their navy graduation caps into the air.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
About 70 women incarcerated at the Coleman Unit in Lockhart celebrate after earning a high school diploma on June 21.

As the first familiar notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” started playing, about 70 women donning navy caps and gowns beamed as they filed into the gym at the Coleman Unit, a women's prison in Lockhart.

This was the eighth class of inmates to graduate with high school diplomas from an adult education program run by the Goodwill Excel Center.

"Today marks a significant milestone in their journey," Excel Center Superintendent Theresa Rappaport said at the June 21 ceremony. "One that is filled with resilience, determination and hope for a brighter future."

Some of the students wore colorful cords to mark their achievements. A gold cord meant they had made honor roll. A green cord signified a graduate had earned an additional certification. Teal was a sign a student had been a leader among their classmates.

The Excel Center operates six adult high school campuses in Texas for students aged 18 to 50. Four campuses are located in correctional facilities. The Coleman Unit is the only women’s prison and typically has about 200 students enrolled.

After opening remarks, a dance team performed. Family members, friends, educators and others cheered as the women danced in unison to “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé, while wearing hand-decorated T-shirts with lyrics from the song.

The girl power anthem was a fitting kickoff for the ceremony, during which speakers talked about how transformative education can be.

Rappaport said there are a variety of reasons women decide to pursue a diploma.

“Some of them return to high school because they wanted to do it for themselves. Some of them return to high school because they wanted to do it for their families,” she told KUT. “Many of them are looking forward to being released and returning to their communities and finding jobs that pay a living wage or potentially going on to continue their education.”

Rappaport also said education plays an important role in reducing recidivism rates.

“We know that students who earn that high school diploma are less likely to come back to prison once they’ve returned to their community,” she said.

Research from the RAND Corporation, for example, has found people who participate in educational programs while incarcerated are 43% less likely to return to prison. The think tank also found investing in prison education programs leads to savings on incarceration costs.

Cheryl Jackson, an inmate who mentors and tutors women in the program, told the graduates that earning a diploma is not just about academic achievement; it’s also about gaining confidence.

“It is a testament to your ability to rise above circumstances, to defy expectations, transforming your life,” she said.

Jackson, who is no stranger to addressing Coleman grads, acknowledged the personal educational journey of each woman. During her remarks, she asked the graduates to reach under their chairs and retrieve an individual note she had written them.

“Every graduate’s story is different and so everyone needs to be encouraged in a different way,” she told KUT after the ceremony.

Jackson said earning a high school diploma while in prison means everything.

“People come to prison so broken and prison is such a dark place,” she said. “So, when they can achieve something that they’ve never done, it makes them feel like they can do anything.”

Education opens doors

Laura Lopez said pursuing a high school diploma helped her realize how much she had underestimated herself in the past. Growing up, she didn’t think she had what it took to be an honors student. She dropped out of school in eighth grade, and her life started spiraling after that.

When she started the Excel Center program at the Coleman Unit, she regularly made the honor roll.

“It brought warmth to my heart,” Lopez said. “I think that’s what pushed me to keep going to school and just to not give up so easily.”

She said she was also motivated to set an example for her kids.

Her friendship with fellow inmate Brichette Wells kept her in the program too. Wells had dropped out during her senior year of high school.

Two women wearing white t-shirts and pants stand next to each other in the Coleman Unit gym which is decorated for the 2024 graduation ceremony.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Laura Lopez and Brichette Wells, who both dropped out of school, helped each other get through the program and earn their diplomas.

Wells said one day she was walking by a math class in the prison and she recognized the concept students were learning: parabolas.

“And I was like, ‘You know what, it’s been a long time since I’ve done all that [but] I would love to spend my time here doing something worthwhile instead of sitting in my room being dreary and bitter,’” she said.

After completing the program, Wells said, she is hopeful about what the future holds.

“All I see are open doors," she said. "I just see open doors and opportunities."

Working together to succeed

Both Wells and Lopez said a key part of their success in the program was how much their teachers believed in them.

DeLisa Harris was one of those teachers.

“I’m kind of like the ladies here in a lot of ways," said Harris, who has taught English at the prison for three years. "Traditional settings just weren’t a good fit for them or me and now here we are together and it’s working."

A woman stands at a podium on a stage while graduates in blue caps and gowns line up to accept their diplomas.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
English teacher Delisa Harris calls graduates to come on stage and receive their diplomas.

Harris, who was named the Excel District Teacher of the Year, announced the graduates' names during the ceremony. She said seeing her students succeed means the world to her.

“I have a whole pocket full of Kleenex over here that kind of symbolizes how I feel,” she said.

Harris said that by pursuing a high school diploma, her students are creating a precious resource: hope.

“They generate that hope everyday here and cultivate it and challenge everyone who is on this journey with them to do the same thing,” she said. “A huge part of our job is to maintain and cultivate hope and share it.”

More than 800 Texas inmates have earned a high school diploma through the Excel Center in the last eight years.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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