By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than two dozen students graduated on Tuesday from one of New York City's more unusual schools, where pens are forbidden and armed guards watch over every classroom.
The ceremony at the East River Academy on Rikers Island, New York City's main jail, allowed prisoners to take a step toward a better future with a high school equivalency diploma, known as a GED.
"Wow! Wow! I say ‘wow' because now I have something people can appreciate me for," said Adboul Hanne, who is awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge.
Rikers makes the school mandatory for inmates who are 16 or 17 and encourages it for inmates ages 18 to 21. Some 3,600 students pass through the school per year, and about 800 are enrolled at any given time, the New York City Department of Correction said.
Experts say educating prisoners is critical for improving their chances of staying out of jail once they are released.
"I don't want you ever to touch foot in this place again," Dennis Walcott, the city's education chancellor, told the graduates on Tuesday.
New graduate Arisleida Duarte, 22, said she did not know how to write an essay or use punctuation before attending the school. She earned her diploma after giving birth twice during two jail stints, she said.
"The fact that my two kids have been born here totally changed my point of view," said Duarte, who was charged in 2010 with attempted murder and is awaiting trial.
Despite its setting, the graduation ceremony was much like any other taking place in high schools across the city.
Inmates dressed in yellow or blue gowns and mortar boards approached the podium to their parents' cheers and shouts of encouragement. Even tough-looking jail officers cracked smiles.
One of the most difficult challenges is developing a coherent curriculum in a jail that is designed to house inmates who are serving less than a year or in many cases are jailed only a few weeks while their case is resolved and they are moved elsewhere, said Nick Marinacci, the school's principal.
With such a churning population, semester-long projects are a difficult undertaking. Instead the school tries to chop up its curriculum into week-long chunks.
"I tell my staff, ‘Teach like there's no tomorrow,'" said Marinacci, who oversees 14 teachers and three assistant principals.
Clutching his diploma, Jamar Allah, 19, said he had dropped out of school, like nearly half the students at Rikers.
He has been housed at Rikers since May on burglary charges that have since been reduced to criminal trespass.
Allah said he planned to enroll at a community college to study culinary science and business management.
But that will have to wait. For now, he is in jail, housed in a 60-bed dormitory, until his October 1 release date.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg; Desking by Andrew Hay)