The students leaned forward, watching closely as Santa Rosa Junior College professor Barbara Gude slapped another math problem on the board. It had been years since some had seen mixed fractions.
Gude turned to her students, all sitting at tables, all dressed in the same demin-blue jail clothing, and asked, “What is the common denominator?” A student shouted the answer without hesitation, “eight.”
Two dozen inmates are enrolled in her math class, which meets for two hours three times a week at the North County Detention Facility near the county airport. It’s one of two courses the junior college currently offers free to inmates at Sonoma County’s two jails as part of a new program aimed at reducing recidivism.
SRJC teamed up with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office last summer to roll out college credit courses for men at the north county jail and women at the main detention facility on Ventura Avenue in Santa Rosa.
Paid through a state grant, the program hopes to break the generational incarceration cycle by making higher education more accessible. In its pilot year, it offered basic math and English instruction, and held a study skills class in the fall.
The college plans to expand its course offerings later this summer in its second year, said Nancy Ewbank Miller, its regional adult education programs director.
The eight-week courses are designed to ease students — who earn letter grades and college credits — back into an academic environment and beef up their language and math skills in hopes they’ll continue their education at SRJC campuses once released.
Gude, who has been teaching at the junior college for 23 years, said her students in jail are eager to learn.
“These guys are the most enthusiastic class I’ve had,” said Gude, who briefly paused before adding, “in my entire career.”
While working on a math problem on the whiteboard last week, Gude’s students shifted in their seats to get a better look at how she was solving it and copied the solution into their notebooks.
Patrick Barsky, 34, sat in the front row, just feet from the whiteboard.
“It’s an opportunity for me to learn something that I can use outside in the world,” said Barsky, an electrician by trade who’s serving time for drug- related charges. “This an opportunity I never had.”
Barsky wants to be part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, but said he needs to take college math classes to join. The Sebastopol man tried attending SRJC after high school but was working full time and dropped out.
Once he’s released in January, Barsky plans to attend college in San Francisco and enroll in a residential treatment center for individuals with substance use disorders.
Reflecting on the program, Barsky wrote in his notebook, “this is the best thing to happen for the jail.”
“If we can get a college-level education while we’re here, then there is no doubt it will help me from coming back,” he said.
William Sanford, 46, hoped for the same. The Santa Rosa man said he’d been to jail previously before returning in January after his arrest on suspicion of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. At first, he thought the classes would help pass time while he awaited sentencing. He later realized they could mean more.
“I could go back to school,” said Sanford, who attended college for more than a year before joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 1993. He said the program has broadened his thinking.
Sanford, having once been a tow operator for 25 years, said he plans to pursue a business certification at SRJC once he’s released and start his own towing company.
“Somebody is knocking at my door, giving me all the pieces,” he said about the college jail program.
Providing college degrees and certificates to inmates increases their chances of securing employment once they’re released, according to a joint report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy.
It also highlighted a 2013 study by the Rand Corp., that found inmates participating in educational programs like college courses and career technical education were 43 percent less likely to end up back behind bars.
About 30 colleges in the state offer jail and prison programs.
Sgt. Liana Whisler, the sheriff’s inmate services coordinator, already is seeing a change in the students’ behavior in jail.
“They seem more motivated,” she said.
“They feel like they have a purpose. And they feel very appreciative. They vocalize it.”
SRJC math professor Regina Guerra worked as the math program director for the San Quentin Prison University Project, considered a model nationwide for college prison programs, before joining the junior college in 2014.
Guerra taught in the Sonoma County jails during the summer and fall. She plans to resume teaching there this summer when the program expands.
“I believe education is the path to change,” she said. “Every student that I taught at some point will be released from jail. These are our fellow citizens and part of our community.”
The average daily inmate population at the county jails is more than 1,100. While students aren’t asked about their specific crimes, Miller said they’re not violent, serious or of a sexual nature.
“The students who we’re working with have an average sentence of six to nine months,” she said.
Participants in the program become official SRJC students, experiencing the enrollment process and receiving a student identification number. That’s significant for many who haven’t been to college — more than half the students never completed high school or received a General Educational Development certificate.
“They don’t think they’re smart enough. No one has ever believed in them,” before Miller said, adding she sees their confidence grow as they go through the courses.
So far, about 150 inmates have taken the college classes, which alternate between the two jails every eight weeks, said Lucy Hernandez, the college’s adult education coordinator. And all have passed their classes.
Students will be connected with an outreach specialist working in tandem with the county’s probation office to help them navigate through the college enrollment and financial aid process, as well as social services such as food and housing.
More than half the students in the program expressed interest in taking additional classes and pursuing a degree or career certificate upon release. Two former students already have done, Hernandez said.