Formerly Incarcerated, With a Learning Disability, She’s Now a College Grad

How a high school dropout learned to add and subtract in prison, and then got a college degree

Courtnaye Charley overcame a tough childhood, bad schools, a learning disability and prison to earn a college degree this spring.

Courtnaye Charley overcame a tough childhood, bad schools, a learning disability and prison to earn a college degree this spring.

Math was always a struggle for Courtnaye Charley, but no one told her that she had a learning disability until she landed in prison at age 17.

An evaluator at Albion Correctional Facility in upstate New York, more than a decade ago, also informed her that, because of her disability, she would never read beyond an eighth grade level. She defied expectations, earning a GED just before she was released from prison in 2010. She then took another leap this spring, when she earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from the College of New Rochelle.

“It took some work, but I made it,” said Charley, now 28, who was born and raised in the Bronx. “I blossomed.”

How unusual is Charley? No data is kept on how many formerly incarcerated women go on to earn degrees once they are released. But few GED holders, whether former prisoners or not, earn college degrees. And Charley was only too typical in another way — being a prisoner who hadn’t made it through high school when she was put away.

About 41 percent of prisoners in New York don’t have a high school diploma, according to the Department of Corrections, and 28 percent are reading at an eighth grade level or below.

Charley says her difficulty in math combined with tumult at home made focusing in class and staying out of trouble difficult. It was some of the women she met in prison – and after her release – who helped her change course.

Charley’s dad was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison when she was three years old. As a little girl, she and her younger sister stayed with different relatives as her mom struggled to make ends meet.

“We had long nights,” said Charley, who speaks in a low, soft voice. “My mom, she always kept a job, so I’d be taking care of my sister, helping her with her homework but not really focusing on me a lot.”

As she got older, Charley says she started acting out and clashed with her mother. She took refuge with her grandmother, a retired city worker.

“I was angry,” she said. “I wanted my father. I think every little girl wants their father.”

Most of the schools Charley attended as a teenager have since been closed for persistently poor performance. Independent School 158 in the Longwood section of the Bronx, where she first started struggling with math, was closed in 2007.

She then attended four high schools – two in the Bronx and two in Manhattan – three of which have since been closed for flailing academically and for safety issues. None of the educators at those schools caught her learning disability, and she stumbled through classes without the extra help that is usually given to students with special needs. She says she liked reading, art and gym – especially when she made the basketball team at Washington Irving High School in 10th grade. But even that ended in heartbreak.

“With being a basketball player, you have to keep a certain grade-point average up,” she said, shaking her head, the sadness still palpable. “To watch that go downhill too, I didn’t even want to go to school any more, because I couldn’t pursue my dream. I couldn’t pass math.”

At 17, she says, she was charged with gang affiliation and robbery, and after her trial, was sent to a medium-security adult women’s prison near the Canadian border.

“I sat in my feelings for quite some years,” she said. It was three years before she took an interest in getting her GED.

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She eventually connected with a prison counselor, who was also a special education teacher.

“She helped me with emotional issues, and courage,” Charley recalled. “Because, like anything, if you’re scared before you even take on the task, you normally think yourself into failure.”

She started working on getting her high school equivalency diploma. Her counselor and a friend named Tiffany began by re-teaching her the basics of addition and subtraction.

“I didn’t pass my GED on the first try, either, I failed the math,” Charley said, her voice rising with the remembered frustration. “I said ‘This is it, I’m quitting.’ [Tiffany] said, ‘No you can’t quit.’ She stayed in that class after getting her GED as well – she stayed behind to be my tutor.”

Charley passed the exam just weeks before her 2010 release. She had been inside for four years and five months. That spring, her mother was graduating from the College of New Rochelle. Proud of her mom and fresh from her own GED success, Charley attended the graduation ceremony and signed up for the summer session.

She was working against the odds when she decided to enroll in college. Only 38 percent of women who earned a GED, incarcerated or not, had graduated from college within six years in 2009, and another half had dropped out altogether, according to the most recent data from the GED Testing Service.

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Charley lived with her grandmother while working seasonal jobs at retail stores, and credits her fellow students, her professors and “the sisterhood” at the College and Community Fellowship (CCF) with giving her the strength to persist in school.

CCF provides intensive academic counseling and mentoring to formerly incarcerated women who want to go to college. In New York, 29 percent of female prisoners are re-incarcerated within three years. The recidivism rate for women in CCF’s program is two percent.

“Self-confidence is a huge issue for some women,” said Maria Santangelo, CFF’s director programs. “So many of our students were told ‘No’ so often.”

Charley has been approved for a low-income apartment in the Tremont section of the Bronx. She is getting ready to move in July, and to live on her own for the first time in her life.

Meanwhile, CCF is starting a new mentorship program, which will match formerly incarcerated women who have earned a degree with women who are within 90 days of release from prison. Charley is applying for one of the positions and hopes to get a Master’s degree in counseling one day.

“To wake up knowing you changed a life, it’s heart-fulfilling, there’s no amount of money that can compensate you for that type of work,” said Charley. “To be able to give back, it’s a blessing.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at and for The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. She’s also covered housing, schools, and local government for the Press of Atlantic City and The Chief-Leader newspaper and her work has appeared in the New York Times and the American Prospect. Kolodner is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an active New York City public school parent.