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Stetson Receives $210,000 grant for Prison Education Project

The Stetson Community Education Project was awarded a $210,000 grant this month and will expand classes for incarcerated men in Tomoka Correctional Institution, as well as begin offering college credit for courses this fall.

Stetson Professor Pamela Cappas-Toro in classroom in Tomoka state prison.

Assistant Professor Pamela Cappas-Toro is a co-founder of Stetson’s Community Education Project at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach.

The Laughing Gull Foundation approved a grant for $70,000 a year for three years for the Community Education Project (CEP), which has offered classes in the Daytona Beach prison since 2015, said Pamela Cappas-Toro, Ph.D., assistant professor of World Languages and Cultures (Spanish) at Stetson.

Beginning this fall, the project will offer one course each semester for non-degree-bearing college credit. Twenty students are expected to enroll this fall and that number will grow to 30 men next fall.

The grant will pay to hire a project coordinator, who will tutor incarcerated students and serve as a liaison with the state Department of Corrections, Cappas-Toro said. The grant also will provide textbooks and school supplies, support students’ emerging scholarship and creative course projects, and add a computer lab for the men, who currently do the coursework by hand.

Andrew Eisen stands in front of the class with a powerpoint slide.

Andrew Eisen, adjunct professor of history at Stetson, teaches a class on the Cuban Missile Crisis in Tomoka Correctional Institution.

“This is going to mean an expansion of our program at Tomoka,” said Andrew Eisen, Ph.D., adjunct professor of history at Stetson and one of the founders of the program. “It will be small, incremental growth to ensure the quality of our program.”

Eisen and Cappas-Toro were involved in a similar prison-education program at the University of Illinois when they were graduate students there. After the married couple arrived at Stetson, they started the program at Tomoka Correctional Institution with Jelena Petrovic, Ph.D., Stetson assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies. The following year, Melinda Hall, Ph.D., assistant professor of Philosophy at Stetson, joined the effort. Currently, the four professors co-direct the project.

Since then, more than 25 Stetson professors have taught classes, led workshops and provided guest lectures to the students in the prison. Subjects have included history, Spanish, philosophy, mathematics, communication, computer sciences and English. They have been supported in part by the Nina B. Hollis Institute for Educational Reform and its Research Impact Award.

The program received its original seed funding through the Hollis Renaissance Fund, which supports new programs in hopes that their success would then be further supported with grants from outside organizations. This is exactly what happened with CEP, said Stetson President Wendy B. Libby, Ph.D.

Wendy Libby smiles and laughs while standing in the front of the class of incarcerated students.

Stetson President Wendy B. Libby has given a guest lecture at Tomoka Correctional Institution.

“Teaching at the Tomoka Correctional Institution fits squarely into our mission,” said Libby, who has been a guest lecturer at the prison.  “That our faculty have been so enormously supportive underscores how clearly this work aligns with Stetson’s values.”

Stetson’s undergraduate students do not visit the prison but have been involved in the program, interning in the CEP office on the DeLand campus and designing proposed logos for the project. Students in a Digital Arts class, taught by Brown Visiting Teacher Scholar Madison Creech, M.F.A., came up with the logos and sent videos of their presentations to the incarcerated students, who then provided feedback on the designs.

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Assistant Professor Jelena Petrovic

“It is wonderful to see the academic efforts of Stetson students align with the work and community of our students at Tomoka. Stetson students in Creech’s class emphasized that the incarcerated men are part of the Stetson community, and this is precisely what we hope for,” said Hall.

“These programs are very much needed, especially in a state like Florida that has one of the highest prison populations in the country,” said Petrovic.

The Laughing Gull Foundation provides grants to increase access to credit-bearing college courses for incarcerated students, primarily in the South, according to its website. The Foundation awarded the grant to Stetson’s Community Education Project this month after visiting the DeLand campus and the prison classroom in February.

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Assistant Professor Melinda Hall

“We are very excited to partner with Stetson University and we appreciate the inspiring work of the Community Education Program!” wrote Hez Norton, interim executive director of the Laughing Gull Foundation, in an email announcing the grant on June 12.

The Stetson organizers hope other faculty members continue to join the project. Already, Joshua Eckroth, Ph.D., assistant professor of Computer Science, has expressed interest in helping with setting up the prison computer lab.

“We’re able to draw on the expertise and the willingness and dedication of faculty members who have from day 1 helped us build this program, all as volunteers,” Eisen said.

– Cory Lancaster

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