Reggie Hester starts every workday the same –behind locked doors inside Jail North, the county jail in Charlotte, N.C.
From his office in the minimum security building, Hester, a site coordinator for Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, works to provide critical resources for incarcerated high school students in order to ensure they graduate and are prepared for life. The nearly 200 16- and 17-year-old male students he works with are classified as youth offenders, identifiable by their color-coded outfits to distinguish them from the adult inmates that are in the same facility. The students are required to attend classes while at Jail North, and Hester does everything he can to make sure graduation is a goal within reach.
“Society may say one thing, but I don’t constantly beat these young men down,” said Hester, who has a master’s in educational behavior disorders. “Having a support system in place breeds resiliency and makes students want to continue their education. We do everything we can to meet their needs, and let them know they are supported here.”
Hester came to this position in 2009, when Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the Mecklenburg County’s Sheriff’s Office and Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system officials all realized there was more that could be done to support students while in custody and after they were released from jail.
In the last four years, Hester has coordinated with as many as 13 high schools to not only make sure the course work they were receiving at Jail North matched the schools’ curricula, but that the students are also introduced to college access programs. He arranges for targeted services like counseling and provides programming that has included art therapy and presentations from local business leaders. And Hester also builds relationships with the students’ families and their schools, so that when students are released, they continue to receive resources and are supported as they integrate back into their community. He also provides the same support for female students at Jail Central, the maximum security facility in Charlotte.
“I know that on a day in and day out basis, I’ve given them everything I can,” said Hester. “We wear a lot of hats, but it is rewarding. Especially at graduation.”
One of the young men Hester supported is Jamal Tate, a Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg alum, who went from spending three stints behind bars to graduating from high school on time and becoming a college student.
“I was lost and hopeless and did not know where I was going in life,” said Tate, now 20 and a sophomore at Central Piedmont Community College in N.C. “Mr. Hester was a great guidance. I definitely benefitted from having a positive male figure in my life. Even his bowties and funny socks made me laugh and having that in such a negative place was helpful.”
Hester was instrumental in Tate’s eventual success, arranging for counseling, making sure all of the required assignments were delivered to the student and making sure he took all his necessary tests for graduation.
Said Tate, “Communities In Schools gives students a system of support. I trusted Mr. Hester and I knew that he had my best interest. I think it [Communities In Schools] is an awesome program and students should take advantage of it.”