Prison teacher nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year award

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2013 - 8:51 PM

Katherine Wolverton-Maki’s dedication to her students — inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes — has earned her a nomination for the state’s Teacher of the Year award.

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Katherine Wolverton-Maki joined her class in giving her student Carlos Castillo a round of applause for receiving his GED last month at Lino Lakes Prison.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES , Star Tribune

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Teacher Katherine Wolverton-Maki never checks her new students’ records. She doesn’t want their past mistakes to influence their future in her classroom.

It’s fair to say her students have made their share of mistakes — and we’re not just talking spelling.

Wolverton-Maki teaches inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes. In a rare move, colleagues nominated and recommended her for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She has been named one of 39 semifinalists.

The Department of Corrections’ director of adult eduction praises her ability to look past the “convict” label and focus on the “learner” in each of her students.

“I don’t want any preconceived notions about my students,” explains Wolverton-Maki. “It doesn’t matter what you did. You’re my student now.”

About 20 percent of the 1,300 inmates at Lino Lakes prison do not have a high school diploma or GED. Wolverton-Maki helps inmates pursue that goal. It’s often a mandated part of their prison sentences. Minnesota Department of Corrections is the second-largest adult basic education provider in the state, according to State Department of Education.

“Offender students often feel shame, embarrassment, anger and resentment toward their education, and Katie is able to give the students a safe place to learn and let down their guard,” said Melissa Callahan, educational director at Lino Lakes, in a letter of recommendation.

Challenges abound

Wolverton-Maki’s classroom at Lino Lakes prison is as challenging as a one-room schoolhouse.

She teaches a classroom of about 25 adult men whose education levels range from fourth grade to high school. Their rap sheets range from felony drunken driving to murder.

Wolverton-Maki teaches all subjects, including English, algebra and composition. Inmates with high school diplomas act as her classroom tutors, grading papers and providing one-on-one help.

She largely creates her own lesson plans. Her class is ever-shifting as inmates come and go.

And there’s no summer vacation: Prison teachers work year-round.

Still, she worries that she’s not doing enough. “I always worry if I am getting to everyone, meeting their needs,” she says. “They really need the one-on-one.”

Dreamed of kindergarten

Wolverton-Maki, 43, stumbled into adult education. When she returned to college in the late 1990s to earn her teaching degree, she dreamed of a kindergarten classroom.

She did shape young minds for a few years, teaching remedial reading and math at a variety of Twin Cities elementary schools.

Wolverton-Maki is bubbly, bright-eyed and quick to praise. It’s easy to see her working with small children.

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