It’s not every day that inmates from a prison are a welcome sight on a school’s campus, and it’s not often that parent volunteers greet them with a smile and lunch during their visit. But last summer, at Zora Ellis Junior High in Talladega, Ala., that scene was part of a school improvement project coordinated by PTO leaders and the state’s Childersburg Work Release Center. We spoke with Zora Ellis PTO cochair Andrea Montgomery to learn more about the school’s recent face-lift.

How did the idea to use inmates as volunteers come about?
It was George’s idea [Montgomery’s husband and cochair]. Wilby Wallace, who’s now our city school system’s truancy officer, is a retired administrator of the Alabama prison system, and that is why he was able to secure help from the work-release program.

Were parents worried?
There was nothing but complete gratitude and praise for [the workers]—nothing negative at all.

How badly was the face-lift needed?
We were fed up with how the school looked. We just wanted the physical facility to look better so there’s more of an element of pride in its appearance. Everybody performs better when things around you look good. A lot of it was catwalks that connect the gym and the lunchroom—the poles were rusty and hadn’t been painted in years. The school was built in the early 1900s, and fungus had darkened much of the mortar and stones.

What did the volunteers do?
For four weeks, they scraped paint, did some pressure washing, painting, and power-washed sidewalks around the building. They were hard workers and helped so much. They made a vast improvement in the appearance of the school.

Would your PTO use these volunteers again?
We would use these workers again for such projects as grounds maintenance, painting, and carpentry. Some of these inmates have good job skills and were involved in a trade.

What’s left to do? And are other parents now motivated to get involved?
The next thing on tap is landscaping. We couldn’t do it over the summer because of a drought. Oct. 1, we’re planning on landscaping. Some business owners are helping to sponsor it. One parent has the machinery to help out....One parent painted the curbings—that’s been his project. One parent is building desks for the entire [computer lab]. We’ve had a couple of parent workdays where we’ve pruned, picked up litter before school started. It’s contagious. Someone says, “Hey, I can do that.”

What can students and families learn from this?
I think we perform better, our attitudes are better, there’s a sense of pride when things look good. We want other people to come on board.

The Group
Zora Ellis Junior High PTO, Talladega, Ala.

School size: 438 students, grades 7-8
Budget: $3,400
Fundraisers: Spaghetti suppers, Valentine fundraiser, homecoming spirit ribbon sales, PTO dues.
Mission: To provide support to the total school program in order to improve the learning climate for all students.

The Program
Work-Release School Beautification Project

Background: Inmates at the Childersburg Work Release/Community Work Center are assigned in “squads” to state and local government agencies, such as Zora Ellis Junior High. The school provided transportation and supervision.

Logistics: For four weeks during the summer, a Talladega City Schools bus driver picked up the workers at 7 a.m. and took them to the school, where they’d stay till about 3 p.m. every weekday. “Some of them had experience as painters, maintenance, and it worked right into what we needed,” says Zora Ellis principal Scott Bailey. “They provided something worthwhile to other people.” Students were not on campus.

PTO participation: Volunteers George Montgomery, Wilby Wallace, and Doug Larry attended a two-hour supervisor orientation at the Childersburg facility. Andrea Montgomery, Jean Larry, and principal Bailey saw to it that lunch was brought in.

Long-term effects: Leaders at the school note that the results have increased overall involvement in the school community. “We have received many positive comments from teachers, students and people in the community,” Bailey says. “People feel encouraged about what’s going on inside because they see what’s going on outside. We believe this will translate to more parent involvement in every aspect of their child’s school life.”