College from jail

Inmates at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy, Virginia will soon be able to earn a degree from behind bars. The Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) will expand its offerings at the facility to grant a General Studies Associate of Science degree and expects to graduate the first four or five students in the spring of 2013.

PVCC has been offering classes at Fluvanna since 2004 and this fall semester, about 40 inmates are enrolled in eight courses ranging from English composition and literature courses to sociology and statistics.


John Donnelly, vice president for Instruction and Student Services at PVCC, said the college is working to find alternate ways to provide Fluvanna inmates the same learning experience as students at PVCC’s main campus.  

Adding more targeted courses, such as science courses, though, has proven difficult because Fluvanna doesn’t come equipped with science labs.
“Traditional classes like history and sociology, we can offer in a standard classroom that has technology to put up a PowerPoint, and Fluvanna has traditional classrooms,” said John Donnelly, PVCC’s vice president for Instruction and Student Services. “The challenge for us to get a student to finish the degree is how to provide science laboratories, because there are no lab facilities at Fluvanna.”

Donnelly said inmates are able to use computers, but according to the Department of Corrections rules and regulations, they are not allowed to access the Internet, and because some of PVCC’s science courses are designed for online use, college officials are looking for alternate ways to allow for the same student experience.

Donnelly said one of the possibilities is the use of “lab packs,” a packet that consists of instructional material that is brought into the facility by the instructor. Simulating online laboratories is also an option.
“We are trying to figure out how to simulate [online material] so that we can put a CD-ROM in and put it in a computer and it will allow students to simulate what they would be doing in a lab,” said Donnelly.

He added that the college wouldn’t be offering these courses right away, but will use next semester to find the best solution for the inmates at Fluvanna.
Joanna Vondrasek, professor of biology at PVCC, is helping to craft a plan to teach a biology class called Life Science that covers biology principles from cells to ecosystems and includes a lab component.

“It’s a matter of what sort of lab experience we can develop for those students,” she said.
“The real challenge will be whether we could pull enough of the virtual labs onto a downloadable software that could be installed on computers, so that it would be a closed system.”

The other option, she said, is to offer traditional, in-person labs “and modify them a little bit to deal with any restrictions on materials.”
Regardless of the teaching method, Vondrasek said she hopes that the inmates will have “an equivalent experience.”
“Our goal is to give them a legitimate lab experience that works in the environment that they are in, and I do think it’s possible,” she said.

Because the General Studies Associate of Science degree allows a student to earn more than 50 percent of college credits at an off-site facility, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) had to grant PVCC a new accreditation to offer it at Fluvanna. SACS has already sent a review team to Fluvanna and has ruled that the program provides “comparable” services to those offered at PVCC.

Donnelly said the next major obstacle to the program’s expansion is funding, since inmates are not eligible for either state or federal aid.
“About 80 percent of our students at Fluvanna, their tuition is funded by private foundations and private donors,” said Donnelly.


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