You Got Your High School Diploma?’

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What happens when you put a classroom on wheels and park it in the poorest neighborhoods of San Francisco?

By Elizabeth Weil | Photographs by Eugene Riley and Chris Shurn | March 27, 2019

One day late last August, Shelia Hill sat at a table on a sidewalk in Sunnydale, outside a San Francisco city bus that had been painted an exceedingly upbeat shade of apple green, yelling at every car that rolled by.

“YOU GOT YOUR HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?”

“Hey, how YOU doing? You got a minute?”

Shelia — who is 51 and has bright red hair and who is fond of sharp sweats, lacquered nails, and a pair of Adidas that say love — was sitting with Katie, the bus driver, trying to recruit students. Shelia was doing all the work.

“How’s your day going? Blessed?”

“Hey, YOU got a diploma? You want an application?”

Sunnydale —  the name of a housing project but really the name of a neighborhood — is one of the poorest, most forgotten parts of San Francisco. If Shelia could get people to fill out applications, she could perhaps get them to change their lives, since the bus was a traveling classroom, the latest project of the Five Keys Charter School. Shelia had done it — she’d bucked nearly 40 years of failing at school and earned a high school degree. Though to be honest, she hadn’t done it on her first try. Or her second. Or third. Or fourth try, either. By the time Shelia arrived at the Five Keys classroom at 1099 Sunnydale Avenue, in 2014, she’d not learned how to read in high school and dropped out. She’d not learned how to read at San Francisco City College and dropped out. “The lady told me I was wasting my time,” she says. “That I just need to get a job, let the school thing go.” She’d fallen into drugs, prostitution, bad relationships, and jail.

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How This California Program Promises College Access To Students Behind Bars

While in jail, this Five Keys student completed his high school diploma and earned a full scholarship to attend Academy of Art University upon his release. ROBINSON KUNTZ

While in jail, this Five Keys student completed his high school diploma and earned a full scholarship to attend Academy of Art University upon his release. ROBINSON KUNTZ

Steve Good, Executive Director of Five Keys, is a guest contributor for the College Promise Campaign

DeShawn*, age 21, was likely headed for prison. But while in jail awaiting his trial, he was able to graduate from high school, attend college classes, and earn a full scholarship to a prestigious art university. For the first time, from inside a prison, he was recognized as a person with a bright future. Released in December of 2018, DeShawn now has a second chance to achieve not only his professional aspirations but also his full potential as a member of his community.  

Women are earning college credits while in jail through a partnership of Five Keys, City College of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. ROBINSON KUNTZ

Women are earning college credits while in jail through a partnership of Five Keys, City College of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. ROBINSON KUNTZ

At Five Keys Schools and Programs, we are helping DeShawn and thousands of others reverse the school-to-prison pipeline. Our programs—offered behind the walls of county jails, as well as at neighborhood centers in economically isolated communities—are designed to build trust, acknowledge each person’s dignity, and empower individuals to take advantage of opportunities that can change the trajectory of their lives.

Five Keys serves over 20,000 Californians annually at more than 100 sites, including inside 20 county jails. Five Keys’ social justice mission centers around the vital connections that must be made between education, workforce development, behavioral and therapeutic services, community engagement, and transitional housing for the homeless.

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