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New York City
April 2001

Prison Prep

by Dynishal P. Gross

In what educational institution in the city are the best teachers found? The question is impossible to answer without considering the needs of the students being taught. Though Martin Villa attended a respected Manhattan private high school, with a highly credentialed teaching staff, he did not encounter the teacher who changed his life until entering prison at the age of 21.

Martin’s early life was rich in educational resources. As a sixth grader, he joined Prep for Prep, a program that prepares minority city students to attend independent schools. Two years later he was a scholarship student, one of the few brown faces at a predominantly Jewish private school. “I was educationally but not socially prepared,” he says of his high school experience. To Martin, the many differences between his family’s working class existence and the lives of his classmates were glaring. “It was like, they go on vacation, you go to Brooklyn.”

When it was time to select a college, a comfortable social environment was as important to Martin as academics. He settled on Pennsylvania’s Lincoln College, a historically black institution and the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Unfortunately, Martin was unable to strike a balance between partying and studying and left Lincoln after only a semester. Back in Brooklyn, the street beckoned and at the age of 19 Martin “caught a case,” when he stole a car.

This was Martin’s first offense, and with his strong academic record and potential, prosecution may have meant probation alone. However, with his mind on instant gratification, not on his future, Martin missed court dates and soon found bail-jumping added to his list of offenses, eliminating probation as an option. In August of 2000, Martin was convicted and began serving a one-year sentence on Rikers’ Island.

Ironically, it was at this institution of correction that he made the personal connections to a teacher and to learning, which had been absent from his experiences in school. George Taite was the teacher who finally reached Martin Villa.

Taite teaches a College Prep program for young men, one of a number of courses offered on Rikers’ Island by LaGuardia Community College. The class allows inmates to develop critical thinking, reading and writing skills through a curriculum built around the themes of personal responsibility and community. “He calls the class the ‘university of life,’” recalls Martin. “Every class was a learning experience, so I felt like missing a class was the worst thing I could possibly do.” In fact, Martin missed only one class during the eight months spent at Rikers, a standout achievement in a revolving door program.

Adult prisoners in New York are not required to attend academic classes, so an instructor must be creative to lure inmates out of the dorms and into the classroom. “Mr. Taite spent time around young people, getting to know them,” Martin observed, “so he could find that avenue to reach them.” While a great teacher can do a lot of good, Martin feels that mandating participation in educational programs for inmates may be another answer. “Lots of dudes are begging for help, wanting to go to jail because they feel backed into a corner. Prison may be the only chance they get to earn some education.”

Since entering Taite’s classroom, Martin’s perspective on life has changed. Now his dreams have education at their center. “I don’t want to be a career criminal, the smartest dude out of everyone on the island. I want to start a business to give back to the community. I want to write poetry, fiction and short stories. I want to study English and Black Studies, maybe help a kid like myself.”

Martin was released from Rikers’ on March 16 of this year, and is back in Brooklyn, living and working. He plans to return to college shortly, through the CUNY Catch program for ex-offenders. As he moves forward, he remains grateful to the teacher whose classroom was a haven. “I can’t say enough about Mr. Taite,” Martin shared. “I thank him for asking me to look inside myself and see myself differently.”


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
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