After dropping out of high school and succumbing to the allure of drugs, four incarcerations and multiple prison sentences, Armando Enriquez found himself in a classroom inside the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning. Now at the age of 32, with positive momentum from earning a G.E.D., a high school diploma, federal Pell Grant financial aid funds for college, and his time served, Armando is ready to spring into college.
MEET ARMANDO THE STUDENT – PART ONE
Before changing schools during his senior year, Armando Enriquez was a typical Inland Empire student who loved school. He took advanced placement and honors courses, completed calculus, and was involved in the science fair and many clubs on campus.
“As far back as I can remember in elementary school, I liked being the one that was called on by the teacher. I wanted to stand out and I would like it when teachers would acknowledge me for my efforts,” Armando said.
He first started thinking about postsecondary opportunities after attending a college fair during his junior year. Armando recalled how “the presentations made it look fun, where I could take pride in being there just like I did in high school,” and his teachers were continually telling him about his potential to succeed and earn scholarships for college.
After changing schools, his engagement to school was severed. His support structure of encouraging teachers and friends with positive influences was gone. Armando’s negative experiences at the new school—combined with the accumulation of credits that made him eligible for early graduation—convinced him to explore other options besides school.
While muddling through the final semester of his senior year, Armando was first presented with drugs by a co-worker at his part-time job.
“The only thing I knew about drugs was from the DARE Programs and the ‘Just Say No’ bumper stickers. I had tried marijuana once and hated it,” Armando shared.
His co-worker offered him speed and Armando eventually tried it. It didn’t take long for it to grow from occasionally using it for a burst of energy to get through the late night weekend shift, to using it daily and becoming involved in the distribution network.
Ironically, Armando’s math skills helped him quickly calculate that the financial benefits from dealing drugs would instantly compare to what he could earn after a drawn-out college education and entry into the job market. Armando may have been naïve about the drug underworld, but the math wasn’t lost on him.
“I was being offered $4,000 twice a month to deliver drugs, and I quickly added up how $8,000 of income a month would equal $96,000 a year—which was exactly what I would be making as a combat engineer after training in the military. I never saw the risks in that equation and so the money was right there for me.”
Armando found himself “at a fork in the road.” Doubting whether he could hold on long enough to his double life as a student and a drug dealer, he signed up for the military hoping that would usher him away from the hole he was digging for himself. He took the entrance exam, and even went to initial training sessions.
“I was ready to be a Private First Class and head to Fort Bragg for training. I even had the bank account direct deposit ready to receive checks. I just had to graduate.”
ARMANDO THE INMATE
During one of his many drug trafficking trips across town one day, Armando was pulled over for a simple traffic violation of not wearing his seatbelt. Drugs were quickly discovered by the police, and what would become a cycle of arrests like this occurred multiple times over the next several years. His sentences never lasted more than a few weeks and he was back out again, picking up right where he left off. During his stints on the outside he became a father and now has three children that his mother is caring for in Arizona.
Eventually, the consequences of his decisions led to longer sentences at Avenal State Prison, but his departure from the fork in his road years earlier seemed too far away to make a change.
“My chances at college and the military were gone, I now had children to provide for and I only knew one way to make money, so I kept going back to drugs.”
MEET TEACHER EDDIE VILLA
Eddie Villa has been an educator for more than ten years.
Villa holds a master’s degree, a multiple subject credential, and special education certifications, but it is his heart for reaching at-risk kids that most qualifies him to serve as a teacher behind bars at Desert Edge High School for the Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE).
“I like to teach students who are waiting for help. I didn’t know all the options that were available when choosing to be a teacher,” Villa said. “I’m lucky to work here. It’s truly a privilege as programs like this only exist because of our partnership with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. They know that education helps lower recidivism, and they understand the big picture that education isn’t just for the students, but for the larger community.”
Mr. Villa has served as the lead teacher at Desert Edge High School for five years where his classroom is filled with students ranging in age from 18 to nearly 50, while representing a wide socioeconomic spectrum. At Desert Edge, students can enroll in independent study, adult basic education leading to a G.E.D degree, English as a Second Language (ESL), and the 100-hour re-entry program that Armando is enrolled in. The re-entry program teaches life skills and career readiness options like computer literacy, which are beyond the standard curriculum.
“There is a wide range of abilities in the classroom as some students took calculus in high school and others are tripped up by subtraction,” Villa said. “The more I empower the students, the more they succeed. Even thanking them for their assistance in front of the rest of the class makes them aware of positive recognition.”
THE TEACHER AND THE STUDENT
After multiple convictions and incarcerations, Armando found himself at the Banning facility in the classroom of Mr. Villa with an opportunity to build some skills that could help him break the cycle of addiction that was ruling his life.
“When I saw that people here at the facility wanted us to get an education and were serious about it, I decided I should do something about it,” Armando said. “I’ve never been in a facility that the staff is so concerned about us succeeding,” Armando said. “In other places I’ve been, it’s like we’re all just passing through. I have seen a lot of people change here with this program. It makes people want to change and it gives us hope.”
Mr. Villa encouraged Armando to embrace learning again.
“Mr. Villa makes it fun. He tries to reach out to each individual person. He sees when somebody needs individual assistance and works with them. He is very mindful of people’s lives, takes personal interest, talks to us normally, and makes people confident about themselves,” Armando said.
Teaching in a classroom featuring college and trade school posters and banners akin to classrooms across Riverside County, Mr. Villa regularly utilizes Armando’s educational background to help other students in the classroom—even nicknaming him “Calculus” after Armando displayed his significant math skills.
“Here in the facility, guys see my skills in science and math and ask me for help. I really enjoy helping them and seeing them get excited when they finally understand something,” Armando said.
“Mr. Villa has made me a lifelong learner. I’m still working on my education so I can help as a substitute teacher. He brings out the best in students in a true example of reciprocal education,” said Martin Ramirez, a 12-year RCOE employee who is in his fifth year as an instructional assistant at Desert Edge High School. “He puts himself in a position to learn while helping everybody move forward. With that outlook, he really can’t fail because he’s always learning.”
ARMANDO THE FREE MAN
Armando served 9 months at the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning and was released in April of 2016. Thanks to the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) program, and the Riverside County Office of Education programs inside the facility, Armando is confident that a new path in life is awaiting him on the outside.
Now at the age of 32, Armando is once again a free man. But, this time, he enters the next stage of life with a G.E.D. and a high school diploma, and college is on his mind. He has been drug free for 9 months and his plan is to be reunited with his kids and enroll in a local community college with his financial aid funds.
“Mr. Villa told me that my high school transcript looks better than his. That tells me that I could be where he’s at someday and that really encouraged me,” Armando said. “Then he asked me if I wanted to go to college, and he helped me fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).”
Mr. Villa recognizes that Armando’s chances at succeeding are entirely up to him.
“I always tell students that the more spokes they have in their wheel, the better indication it will be of their success. Armando has many of those including self-confidence, being observant, teaching others, and having a big heart that leads him to help others,” Villa said. “If he wants to be successful, he needs to keep challenging himself and maintain the autonomy that he is establishing in his life.”
Armando shared that what he’s most looking forward to is carrying a backpack again as a student. He is ready for the challenge and recognizes that feeling of being at another “fork in the road.”
“This time my feet are now headed down the right side of the path. I was too far away from that original bad decision to think I could get back to my potential and now I get to make that decision all over again,” Armando said. “I feel back at that fork again and that is because I know the teachers believe in me—just like when I was little, the belief that teachers had in me motivated me. I feel that way all over again. I know that whatever I choose, I’ll accomplish it. I know my possibilities are endless.”