You never know when you’ll be given a second chance.

Town of Arlington resident Jeff Noble, instructor for the Small Business Entrepreneurship (SBE) program at Madison College’s Truax Campus, is helping in that regard. Noble began teaching part-time at the college in 1990 as an adjunct professor. He has been a full-time instructor at the college for 20 years. He has also been a member of the Poynette School Board since 2011, being appointed President in 2021.

Madison College is one of several dozen colleges and universities around the nation involved in the Second Chance Pell Grant program, something that was established within the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 by the Obama-Biden administration. According to the DOE, the program is to “provide grants to incarcerated individuals to allow them to participate in postsecondary education programs.”

Recently, some instructors at Madison College specifically helped those incarcerated youths at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility (RYOC), which houses males from age 18-24 who have been committed to the Department of Corrections (DOC) through adult courts.

There was no hesitation from the college to get involved, according to Noble.

“When the opportunity presented itself to (Madison College), we jumped in with both feet,” Noble said. “It is a great way to work with more students, and ones who expressed interest. This is a great opportunity to build their skills.”

Madison College has been working with the DOC for decades on vocational programming, according to Noble, and in 2016, began working on re-entry programs. This made the college well-positioned when applying for the Pell grant.

No one at the RYOC facility was forced to be in the program. Every individual took part voluntarily, wanting to further their education.

“These young men come from highly diverse backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common,” Madison College President Jack E. Daniels III said in a news release. “They are looking for positive change in their lives and the college’s Second Chance Pell Grant program is helping them achieve that.”

It all culminated on May 20, when a dozen individuals received their Small Business Entrepreneurship diplomas through Madison College. Several others earned their GEDs.

Noble saw that positivity Daniels mentioned first hand.

“I’ve seen a super-positive transformation with how the students organize themselves and their focus,” he said.

For Noble and Madison College, the work began in 2020, when the college was included in the expansion of the Pell program. Noble developed four courses — Market Principles, Small Business Development, Selling Principles and Operations Management. The courses were specific to the curriculum taught at Madison College, with classes at the RYOC facility beginning in the summer of 2021. Noble ended up teaching two of the course he developed, as Jill Huizenga — director of the SBE program at Madison College — and SBE faculty member Jodi Goldbeck also taught courses.

The experience was not only potentially life changing for the students, but it also had a great effect on Noble, who has been teaching for more than three decades.

“As I near the end of my career, this helped revitalize me,” he said. “I learned as much from them as they did from me. I take pride in their sense of accomplishment. I was a little bit moved by the experience, especially the graduation. … I feel privileged to be a part of it.”

Noble and Huizenga were two of 15-20 instructors to help Madison College and the RYOC facility. Other courses taught included accounting and math with business principles.

“The students did extremely well,” Noble said, adding that the cumulative GPA of those in the Madison College program was about 3.1.

Jamie Reinart, the Education & Training Program Liaison for the college, works with Wisconsin’s DOC full time for these programs.

“She is out in the prisons for many days each month and has been a tremendous advocate for these young men,” Noble said.

Overcoming challenges

Noble said one of the first, and biggest, challenges throughout the experience was converting all the course material. Madison College’s curriculum is done via a Blackboard-based program, but everything had to be transferred to Moodle — DOC’s learning management system. Noble estimated about 300 hours of his time was spent on converting the material.

“The students have no internet access or email access at the facility,” Noble said. “Just getting things ready was a lot of work.” He added that discussion groups could not be held either, and if instructors wanted to show a video, it had to be converted to a DOC-compatible platform.

Other challenges were beyond Noble’s, and the other instructors’ control, including students that were transferred to another DOC facility. RYOC also experienced COVID-related quarantines and lockdowns, which affected the ability for some to access necessary information.

The instructors also had to overcome the challenge of meeting new students, which can be difficult no matter the setting.

“Anytime you meet students for the first time, it’s a learning process,” Noble said. “The big challenge is to establish that relationship and build trust. … It was gratifying to see the growth of the students and watch them improve. There were a lot of positive interactions.”

All of those challenges were worth it to Noble, who was able to attend the graduation ceremony at the RYOC facility.

“The graduation ceremony was one of the most gratifying moments of my career,” Noble said. “To see all the young men and their family members, and others who supported them, it was a super-positive experience.”

Noble added that he was able to shake the hands of the men that he had only seen on video, look them in the eye and congratulate them. Students and instructors were also able to have meaningful face-to-face conversations about more than just the course materials.

“Now they have that technical diploma, and they have that entrepreneurial mindset,” Noble said. “They have that sense of direction and that sense of accomplishment. … Now they can utilize these skills. These students have great potential if they see things through.”

Those earning their SBE diplomas in May now need just one more year of schooling to achieve an Associate’s Degree. Noble said many of the youths are interested in continuing their education.

In addition to the RYOC facility, Madison College offers its program to the Thompson Center (Deerfield), Jackson Correction (Black River Falls) and Oakhill Correctional Institute (Oregon). Noble said the program is hoping to expand to even more sites in the future.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 7,000 credits have been earned by students through the Second Chance Pell Grant program. In April 2022, the DOE invited 73 more colleges and universities to be part of the program, meaning that up to 200 educational institutions will now be able to participate nationwide.

Madison College expects to expand the program and have 60 students enrolled across six Department of Correction facilities in fall.

Noble is already thinking of the possibilities that may come from the men he helped to take that first step toward a better life.

“Maybe someday down the line, I’ll go to a grand opening of somebody’s new business,” he said.