Northern California program helps formerly incarcerated students step up to land jobs, re-enter community

610 200 Nadine Ono

(Photo: Shasta College)

When Angela Tirado was given the opportunity to pursue a college degree after being incarcerated, she knew this time she was ready. “I had tried school before and failed every time I went, but when I was given another chance through STEP-UP, I said, ‘Okay, of course I’ll do that.’”

In June, Tirado received her associate degree from Shasta College through the Shasta Technical Education Program-Unified Partnership, or STEP-UP, a program geared to reduce recidivism using restorative justice through education. STEP-UP, which began in 2013, is a collaboration between Shasta College and county sheriff’s and probation offices in the region.

“The Shasta College STEP-UP program serves three counties (Shasta, Tehama, and Trinity) with some of our biggest proponents being probation and parole departments,” said STEP-UP Program Manager Robert Bowman. “At first it was a little bit of a mixed bag because a lot of times you get folks who have been involved in the system so long, they get a bit jaded. In the area we serve there was truly a collaboration from the beginning.”

Shasta College’s STEP-UP program has been selected as one of the top three winners of the California Economic Summit’s Partnership for Industry and Education (PIE) Contest. Amy Costa, a PIE Contest judge and member of the California Community Colleges Board of Trustees, praised the program, saying “Shasta College’s STEP-UP program represents what makes California Community Colleges truly world-class by offering an educational program that meets student where they are in life. With strong local collaboration, Shasta College’s STEP-UP helps reentry individuals obtain employment—a proven strategy to reduce recidivism.”

STEP-UP provides education and vocational training to formerly incarcerated students and students who are under court-ordered supervision. The students can work toward certificates in technical education (CTE) or an associate degree. They receive hands-on instruction and are able to apply what they learn through internships and industry consortiums. The goal is to best prepare them for employment in the community.

The program provides students with much more than access to education. It also provides academic and counseling support, expungement workshops, financial aid, mentorship, and resource assistance. Students are also required to attend a monthly meeting with other students which instills a sense of community.

“It’s empowering when they see something more in themselves,” added Bowman. “A lot of these people come from broken places; they never had a model of appropriate behavior. Many come from families with history of addiction, abuse and poverty. There are a lot of barriers to success such as housing and food insecurity — the things that a lot of other folks haven’t had to deal with.”

Tirado credits that support for her success. “STEP-UP really helped me check-in every week even when I had different things going on — not school-related. They were a great support and even wrote recommendation letters for me. I could talk to them about anything.”

Nick Hitchko, STEP-UP’s probation liaison, meets with students monthly to make sure they’re on track. “These are all active probationers. It takes five minutes to talk about how compliant they are, if they need to check in with probation, need to remind them of court dates, your recovery program, your mental health program, even update small things like phone number and address, just to keep them in compliance with probation.”

STEP-UP has helped reduce the recidivism rate to 19 percent (Shasta County’s is 33 percent and the State is at 65 percent). Seventy-three students have earned a certificate in a career technical field and four students earned their associate degree and transferred to four-year institutions. In the 2019-20 academic year STEP-UP will have 14 students earn an associate degree and 19 students will earn a certificate. 

The success of STEP-UP is being recognized, not just by the Summit. The program won an innovation grant from the California Legislature, which allowed STEP-UP to expand and provide mini-grants to programs across the state, including San Diego, Los Angeles and Mendocino among others. It has also received several statewide awards.

“You hear that catchphrase, ‘Reduce Recidivism’ all the time,” said Hitchko. “People throw that around without backing it up. To have a program like this, this is exactly what it does. Reduce recidivism and put these students in classes where they can get certificates and get tangible, technical skills and then go to work and get gainful employment. That’s a win-win for the community.”

It is certainly a win-win for Tirado. “After my first semester, because I got my kids back, I had all these ‘learning how to do normal things’ to do — it wasn’t just going to school. I realized — I got through one semester — I could do this. I could envision that I could have that degree that I always wanted. Going to school every day helped me to be on a routine and not want to do the things that I was doing before.”

Next up for Tirado, she’s currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree, while working and living with her children.

The PIE Contest awards will be presented at the 2019 California Economic Summit which will take place in Fresno on November 7-8.


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono