In 2003, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey set about interrupting the cycle of incarceration and crime by launching the nation’s first charter school operated by a sheriff’s department. Hennessey knew that incarceration and education are inextricably linked: while high rates of incarceration for high school dropouts have been well documented, the chances of returning to jail decrease significantly if inmates participate in education programs. Studies have shown that graduating from high school lowers the chances of committing future crime, and that even intergenerational incarceration can be affected by raising a parent’s reading level, which in turn increases their children’s academic success.
With an unprecedented charter from the San Francisco Unified School District, Hennessey launched the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Five Keys Charter School (FKCS) and began running a high school for adult inmates inside the county’s jails. The school is remarkable not just because of its location and student body, but because of the project’s mission: to decrease recidivism through education. The school was modeled around a unique mission, inspired by serving a population that had previously been unsuccessful in traditional education environments: run a school that inspires inmates to become students and sheriff's deputies to foster learning.
FKCS tackles one of the most pressing issues in America today: the high emotional and financial cost of crime and incarceration. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with close to seven million adults under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2011.The impact of incarceration is equaled by the impact of crime. Predictably, people living in high-crime neighborhoods witness and are victims of more violent crime. Furthermore, a growing number of studies are finding that exposure to crime heightens children’s stress and diminishes school performance. Moreover, crime acts as a tax on the entire economy, draining government funds, diminishing property prices, discouraging investments, and reallocating scarce resources.
Five Keys students spend the day in integrated classes studying for their high school diplomas and discussing the consequences of crime. The model has reduced inmate violence and recidivism, and interrupted cycles of intergenerational incarceration.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Steve Good and Sheriffs Michael Hennessey and Ross Mirkarimi, Five Keys Charter School is fully accredited and is teaching over 1,300 students every day and 8,000 annually at over 25 sites, including sites specifically for youth at risk of incarceration.
After ten weeks of instruction, FKCS students experience an average of two grade level gains in reading and math. The recidivism rate for FKCS high school graduates from 2003 to 2010 was 44%. An impressive figure considering that CDCR recidivism rates for that time period averaged close to 70%. Furthermore, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department used a more encompassing definition of recidivism than CDRC when collecting the data. CDCR counted only a return to jail or prison, whereas the SFSD included anyone who experienced re-arrest. The program has been replicated in Los Angeles, and now operates in three jails and five community sites in that city.