Like most teachers, when Anita Clamer begins a school year, she elicits student information. In her classes, though, there’s one caveat: Students are not to write about their cases. Once class starts, there are rules: no inappropriate language, no gang references and no case chatter. With a master’s degree in educational leadership and a teaching certification from Immaculata University, Clamer co-teaches the high school diploma equivalency program at Chester County Prison in West Chester. Her mostly male students range in age from 15 to 21. Many are awaiting trial. An employee of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, she’s one of four teachers in the prison’s youth and work-release centers.
MLT: Explain the programs.
AC: It’s a state mandate that anyone under 21 is entitled to an education. For those 17 and under, enrollment is required for those without a diploma. For those between 18 and 21, they can accept or decline classes. GED classes are optional for any inmate.
MLT: You raised two sons and are now teaching mostly men. Any similarities?
AC: Both experiences have taught me a lot about flexibility. Many teachers aren’t flexible enough—like those who expect their students to sit quietly with their hands folded on their desks. In class, I have to be flexible. My students come from all walks of life. When I went back to school, though, it was my sons who said it didn’t make sense. They told me, “You’re supposed to get out of school, not go back to school.”
MLT: Outsiders would say you have a tough job.
AC: My mother always asks me if I’m OK, and if they keep an eye on me in there. They are inmates. But, to us, they’re our students. I’m there to teach and not to judge. When they first come in, many are reserved or defensive; they’ve just never had a chance. We encourage them to take classes, and 98 percent do.
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MLT: Does anyone break your class rules?
AC: They know what inappropriate language is, and if they slip, they’ll say, “Oh, sorry.” Once they walk into the room, it’s a classroom. I take pride that I’m not judgmental. All of us make mistakes, and all of us deserve a fair shake. I like to see people get a chance in life. Fairness isn’t a political or religious conviction; it’s a personal one.
MLT: Are you the prototype for Exton-based novelist Lisa Scottoline’s prison-teacher protagonist in her New York Times bestseller Daddy’s Girl? Didn’t she do her research at Chester County Prison?
AC: She did her research the summer before I was teaching in the program. We didn’t meet until I went to one of her book signings and told her I work at the prison as a teacher. I wouldn’t want to be the prototype. It’s just nice to know that a book about my job was a bestseller.
MLT: What does your course content consist of?
AC: Often, we’ll use current events to spark a lesson or discussion. A lot of things we teach come up in the news—like when Warren Buffett challenged billionaires to donate half their fortunes. My students had no clue what a philanthropist was. I told them that when they become rich, they’d have to become philanthropists.
MLT: What’s the content of the core curriculum like?
AC: When teaching math, we start all of them wherever they are in math, though I will always review fractions, decimals and percentages. Most haven’t been in school. For many of them, they have to learn how to think again.
MLT: How are classes structured?
AC: There are three classifications of inmates: minimum security, medium security and maximum security. Maximum-security students must have one-on-one classes. After lunch is served at 10:30 a.m., school goes from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. We have 15 students this year, and we had 30 last year. There’s also a Title 1 federally funded, eight-week summer program. Participants earn school-hour credit—and homework-hour credit in the cellblocks—until they earn what their home school requires. They also might’ve earned additional credits in other prior placements. We coordinate with home school guidance counselors and administrators to tailor a program that meets each student’s needs.
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MLT: When your students earn a diploma, do they walk?
AC: Their names are read at graduation ceremonies, but no one we’ve had has been able to attend their graduation yet.
MLT: What’s the day-to-day learning environment like?
AC: There’s a mutual cooperation. We’re there because we care. People say I must have a hard job, but absolutely not. Teachers in the public schools are the most challenged. I know from when I subbed in the Downingtown and Phoenixville area school districts. I’d say I’m safer in the prison than I was in the public schools.
MLT: Did you have inspiring teachers?
AC: I had the good and the bad. The good ones inspired, and the bad ones also inspired me, because I knew I could do a lot better than them.
MLT: What’s your favorite part of the job?
AC: I’m able to help students who’ve not been given a chance in life to be successful. I’m not sure what happens after they get out, but I can have a positive influence on them while they’re with me.
MLT: Weren’t you originally a banker from a banking family?
AC: I was an undergraduate economic and business administration major at Ursinus College, then spent two years as an assistant branch manager in a savings and loan, but I learned the business world wasn’t for me. Then I worked in admissions in two hospital systems, but I found it too emotionally draining.
MLT: Are there signs of hope inside the prison walls?
AC: There’s justice somehow. Every person has worth and should be aware of their worth. These students haven’t been shown they have any value, and a lot of that is because of drugs. Drugs hit everybody. Our guys have battled that; they have no family unit. We hope that, when they get out, they can connect with others who will help them in their lives outside prison.