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Students teaching English to RCI inmates

December 04, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

It's not your typical college class.

On Saturdays since September, 17 Shepherd College students have been going to prison - the Roxbury Correctional Institution near Hagerstown - to teach English as a second language to 23 inmates.

For many of the college students, the experience is more than a chance to earn three credits.

Tony Nardolillo, a 22-year-old Shepherd College senior who is fluent in Spanish, said, "I'm half Puerto Rican. ... so I feel I have an obligation to help."

"We really care about them learning English and they've definitely been improving," he said.

While most of the teaching is done one-on-one, Nardolillo teaches two inmates who are the least proficient in English.

One of his students "couldn't speak a word of English" when they started and the other could speak just a little English, he said.

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"Now they can say complete sentences."

Among other things, they can explain themselves if they're accused of something now, he said.

"I feel there's a few in here who,, if they knew English, might not be here" because they could have explained themselves better, Nardolillo said.

Shepherd College senior Kenda Miller said: "The first time it was so scary. I'd never been to prison before. I didn't know what to expect."

Miller said she signed up for the class for three main reasons: "I needed the credit. I knew that I'd be doing some good, helping someone. And because of my future career (she is considering a career in law enforcement) I wanted to see what it was like."

Miller said the experience has been rewarding.

"I like it a lot," she said. "Helping someone and letting them know that there is someone from the outside that cares about them."

Teaching English has improved her grammar as well, Miller said.

"It's been a learning experience for both of us," she said.

Miller's student, 33-year-old Guatemala native David Rustrian, said the class should help him once he is released.

"I think the class is OK for me," said Rustrian, who is serving time for an assault conviction.

"If I get better at English. (I'll have a) better opportunity to get a better job," he said.

The class, which is held in the prison library, was suggested about two years ago by a Shepherd student who also works at the prison, said Hope Maxwell-Snyder, the college Spanish professor who oversees the class.

"He brought it to my attention that there were a large number of Spanish speaking prisoners who couldn't understand English, which was dangerous for them," she said.

Joseph Sacchet, the warden at the medium-security prison, said, "We were experiencing inmates not able to take care of themselves."

For example, inmates with limited or no English skills couldn't fill out a pass to get medical attention or read medication instructions, Sacchet said.

The warden added that becoming more fluent in English will make it easier for inmates to integrate back into society once they are released from prison.

"It's still an English-speaking world," he said.

A trial class was done earlier this year with volunteers and it was made a regular class for the fall semester.

"No one knew what to expect. It was a gamble," Maxwell-Snyder said.

"I have been impressed by the inmates' interest and eagerness to learn," she said.

"It's been rewarding for me because I like helping people and important for the students to learn about the real world, not just in an academic setting," she said.

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