Making the World a Better Place

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Seated on a November morning at the family breakfast nook, Fran Rago prepares for another session of the course he teaches twice a week as a volunteer at the Osborn prison in Somers.

Photo by Lester Smith

Seated on a November morning at the family breakfast nook, Fran Rago prepares for another session of the course he teaches twice a week as a volunteer at the Osborn prison in Somers.

Those of you who know Fran Rago, a long-time Suffield resident, will recall that before his retirement he had been a science teacher for many years, at both the high school and the college levels. After his retirement, with plenty of free time on his hands, with lots of energy, and with the same sense of commitment that he had always shown, Fran made a decision to try teaching a science course at Osborn prison in Somers, as a volunteer. As he says, he felt he should use whatever gifts he had, to help others who could benefit from them.

Fran is an interesting combination of idealist and realist. He acknowledges that most of his 16 to 18 students have meager educational backgrounds, and he needs to structure his course and his expectations accordingly. On the other hand, he describes the positive culture shock that he felt when he started this activity more than a year ago; he reports that his students are 100% engaged all the time. They are appreciative of his efforts, often stopping by after class to thank him for being there. He has never felt uneasy in the prison, although he confided with a chuckle that the metal detectors are beginning to get on his nerves.

Fran had the freedom to select his own course, so he decided on a somewhat lighter version of Anatomy and Physiology entitled Understanding the Human Body in Health and Disease, with a practical emphasis rather than a purely theoretical and abstract one. Because state and federal funding has been reduced, there is no money for textbooks—but that doesn’t deter Fran; he prints out his notes for the students to use in lieu of a text as they do their homework. His class meets twice a week in the afternoon, for an hour and a half each time, for the entire school year. The students range in age from early 20s to over 70. They are required to qualify for the privilege of taking courses, and Fran says they treasure the certificates of achievement they receive at the end of the year.

The students in Fran’s classes are not only assigned homework, they are also given quizzes so that they can judge for themselves their progress in the class. They receive grades, but no academic credit in the sense that we know it. However, the more they can absorb, the better equipped they will be if they ever decide to return to school after they leave the prison. The most important thing they are learning has more to do with plain old study skills than with the content of the course. If they can improve those skills, they may someday be able to enroll in a community college. What a boost that would be, not only for the prisoners who want to find good jobs, but for society in general.

Yes, Fran is realistic about the limits that circumstances have placed on his students. At the same time, he is a dyed-in-the-wool idealist, with a strong belief that at least some of the men he is teaching will go on to a better life. That’s real-world idealism, the kind that can truly make a difference. A singularly modest person, he points out that he is also benefitting from his work; he is getting something out of it too. It is enormously fulfilling, he says, to see that at the prison a good match has been achieved; what he has to give and what the prisoners need to get are compatible, if not identical, goals. A winning combination!

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