A reading class at Cook County Jail is turning women serving time for felonies into tutors
LakeSha Sims, who took part in literacy classes while serving time in the Cook County Jail, volunteers as a tutor in a literacy class for adults at Literacy Chicago on Aug. 12, 2015. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
It could have been a game show, or a variation on Hangman.A word on a whiteboard, a highly vocal studio audience and at the front, with markers in hands, LakeSha Sims and Tracy Cisero running the game.
The game was adults learning how to read.
Word by word, on the board in a room at Literacy Chicago.
FREQUENTLY. PROPHESIED. And PULCHRITUDE, because the class members, who pick the words, sometimes like to give tutor Rob Shindler a hard time.
The class was filled with the kind of adults who regularly seek help from Literacy Chicago — adults who for a variety of reasons never learned to read and have swallowed embarrassment and fear to learn now.
But Sims and Cisero were a new kind of tutor.
They have just finished serving sentences for felonies at Cook County Jail.
Shindler, a longtime volunteer at Literacy Chicago and an attorney, wasn't looking for tutors when he began teaching at Division 17, the jail's therapeutic treatment program for women, 18 months ago at the invitation of a jail psychologist.
He assumed he would be teaching the women how to read.
"So I wrote the letters AEIOU on the board," he said. "And they started laughing at me."
It turned out that many of them already knew how to read — some of them well. Sims attended DeVry University, where she is proud to say she earned a bachelor's degree in engineering.
So why had they come to a class on literacy?
Sims, 36, who was serving a 120-day sentence for identity theft, had hoped to learn some tips for teaching her dyslexic daughter.
Cisero, 46, whose 120-day sentence was for violation of probation on an earlier retail theft conviction, had been bored on a Wednesday afternoon.
"I was embarrassed," Shindler said. "I thought I didn't have a purpose or place with these ladies. Then someone said, 'You know, I have an uncle and everyone in the family knows he can't read. He holds the menu, then says, I'll have what you have.'
"Then someone else chimed in, 'I have a son at home who can't read.' Then everyone chimed in. Everyone had a story about knowing someone who can't read."
And then came the suggestion that transformed the class.
"Someone said, 'Teach us to be able to teach someone else,' " he said.
Shindler and June Porter, Literacy Chicago's director of adult literacy, paired the readers up with the nonreaders and trained the readers to become tutors. And every Wednesday afternoon, the tutors sat with a fellow inmate to work on reading.
Sims and Cisero loved it.
Cisero, who hadn't picked up a book since she graduated high school, found herself learning along with her student. "Now I know how to break big words down," she said.
They were released from jail at the end of June. Both immediately began volunteering as tutors in Shindler's weekly class at Literacy Chicago, which he has dubbed, along with the jail class, Chiread.
Sims and Cisero have been regular, devoted teachers. Sims has even filled in for Shindler when he took vacation.
"They've been a joy," said Richard Dominguez, executive director of Literacy Chicago. "They're really excellent, both of them."
Cisero, a mother of three who is now enrolled in the CTA Second Chance Program, admires the literacy students for working hard and not being embarrassed to learn from someone younger. She loves working with them.
"Every Wednesday when I leave here, I feel better about myself," she said.
Sims, who just got a job at a restaurant, usually brings her three daughters to the class. She considers the literacy students "super cool."
"I get more out of helping people than they get out of me helping them," she said.
It looks like a close contest. When H.C. Warfield, a distinguished-looking man with a gray beard and a well-thumbed dictionary, hesitated to sound out the word he had suggested, Sims and Cisero were ready with encouragement.
"You gotta try," Cisero coaxed. "We're all here to help one another."
"You see 'ly' at the end," Sims said. "What's 'ly'?"
Sound by sound, they helped him to break the word down until he and several others called it out excitedly:"Frequently!"
Shindler is delighted, and somewhat humbled, to see the women he met in jail become the tutors he works with.
"I saw the DOC on their backs and I presumed ... that they had some reading issues," he said. He will not make such assumptions again, he vowed.
Several more women in the jail class are being released and plan to volunteer at Literacy Chicago, he said, including a woman who reads at a third-grade level.
"She thinks she can help someone who has a lower reading level than her," he said.
A room full of people laughing and cheering over words is a thing of beauty. But Shindler sees the work of the felons-turned-tutors as a challenge to the rest of us.
"We're trying to create this army of tutors, but everyone always says the same thing: 'I don't have time. I don't know how to do it,' " he said. "We could teach anyone how to teach someone to read in less than an hour. If someone sitting in jail can learn to become a tutor, then why can't you?"
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