Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Jail closure ends Dallas woman’s 62-year teaching career
Marie Barree began teaching GED courses at Dawson State Jail following 22 years with DISD.
DALLAS Marie Barree says she’ll miss getting up at 3:20 every morning and heading directly to jail.
The 86-year-old woman retired Friday after a 62-year teaching career that included 22 years with Dallas ISD and, most recently, working at Jesse R. Dawson State Jail, where she has helped prisoners earn their GEDs for almost 15 years.
When the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced in June that it would shut down the jail after the Legislature’s May vote to remove funding, Barree decided it was time to end a teaching career she said she found immensely fulfilling.
“My children were so happy that it was closing because they wanted to see me stop working, and they knew that them telling me to stop wasn’t going to get me to stop,” she said.
Barree said she was driven to apply for a teaching job at the jail in 1998. Still lonely after her husband’s recent death and relying on a cane from a leg amputation three years before, Barree said she wanted to use her teaching skills to help prisoners get their lives back on track.
“I had never had that experience before, and I didn’t know whether I was going to be afraid or how I was going to feel,” she said. “But I felt quite at home; I felt very relaxed.”
One of her former students and recent GED recipient Luis Dominguez said Barree’s instruction will have a lasting effect on his prospects when he gets out of prison.
“Going out into the world, we’re just ex-cons, so it’s hard for us to get any kind of school education,” Dominguez said. “The first thing people ask is, ‘Do you have a GED or high school diploma?’ We get set back and go back to our old ways, commit crimes again just to feed our families. Now that we got our GED, it’s going to make it a lot easier to find jobs.”
Dawson State Jail education counselor Janyelle Martin oversees the jail’s education program and said Barree’s age has not been a barrier to effectively teaching younger prisoners.
“She actually reaches out to the inmates,” Martin said. “She has had some of the hardcore criminals in her class. They just respect her, and she’s just an awesome teacher.”
Barree said many of the inmates enter her classes not wanting to be there. She said she manages potential behavioral challenges through a combination of stern rule enforcement and expression of mutual respect.
“I guess in the first place, with the inmates, you don’t want to go in making them feel that you are better than they are,” Barree said. “You want to be fair, firm and consistent with them.”
Barree’s grown daughter, Paula Barree, one of three children, was supportive but concerned when she found out her mother would be working at a prison. Not knowing what to expect, Paula Barree said she worried about “any conflict that would be hazardous to [her] mom” if an argument ever escalated.
“I thought it was a good opportunity,” Paula Barree said. “[I was] a little bit questionable about her being exposed to inmates because she has a strong personality, but it worked out.”
Phillip Maddox, who also received his GED and is a recipient of Barree’s instruction, said Barree pushes her students to take ownership of their education and cares whether they actually learn the material.
“Ms. Barree is a go-getter, that’s for sure,” Maddox said. “She’ll make you get your GED. She’s a real teacher, that’s for sure. She knows what she’s doing. If you don’t get [a concept], all you gotta do is ask her. She’ll make sure you get it before she goes on to anything else.”
Barree’s work for DISD included 12 years as a facilitator working with teachers around the district and another 10 as a classroom teacher, most recently at Alex Spence Middle School, where she also served as head of the math department until she retired from the district in 1986.
This time, she thinks she will stay retired.
“I didn’t feel that way when I left those other jobs,” she said. “I kept wondering, ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do?’ I went from job to job. But this time, I feel that I can really relax.”
Neighborsgo reporter Daniel Houston can be reached at 214-977-8024.
Education departments of Texas public prisons are organized under the state’s correctional Windham School District. The district was established by the Texas Legislature in 1969 to provide academic and career training to prisoners.
Although Dawson State Jail and its education department is privately run by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, Windham School District must approve all CCA academic curricula every three years. Every educator CCA considers for an opening is also subject to standards set by Windham.
For more information on state correctional education, visit windhamschooldistrict.org.
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