Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

January 22, 2014

RAY MOSCOWITZ: Gentile's work with inmates mirrors his career

Former Mac superintendent says many in prison desire to learn.

MC Weekly

---- — You talk casually, but substantively, with Carmine Gentile over the years; and you get answers to direct questions posed in an email; and you come to the conclusion that decency is embedded in the man’s soul.

That’s my take — which is probably not the same as some people’s views in the Maconaquah School Corp. So be it.

Gentile has a spiritual nature, which has propelled his life. It may not have been evident during his time as superintendent of Maconaquah schools — 2001-2007 — but it was beating strongly.

And so it is no surprise that when you ask Gentile about his work — quiet work — with prisoners at the Grissom Correctional Facility these days, you get responses grounded in faith.

Carmine (Carmelo) Alfred Gentile grew up in the Bronx, the oldest of three children and only son of Diego Gentile, an insurance agent, and Maria Gentile, a seamstress.

While growing up, Gentile realized many people who were influential in his life were teachers.

Some of them taught at Bogota High School in Bogota, N.J., 4 miles across the George Washington Bridge from the Bronx.

By the time he was graduated in 1969, Gentile possessed math ability, which he developed at William Patterson College in Wayne, N.J. He earned a bachelor of science degree in math/education in 1973, knowing he wanted to emulate teachers who had influenced him.

“I had a sense of wanting to help others,” Gentile says, when asked how he became interested in education.

He decided to seek a job in the Midwest, because the cost of living was less expensive than the East Coast and because one of his sisters lived in Portage, Ind. He got his first job in Fairborn, Ohio, north of Dayton, as a high school math teacher. Gentile eventually moved on to teach at Rogers High School in Michigan City.

As his career unfolded, Gentile began to realize he could use his skill in mathematics to teach morals and ethical values to teenagers.

“It was obvious that they needed to develop their own ‘beliefs’ by debating on basic principles,” he recalled. “They appreciated a firm position based on principles, even though they often disagreed and argued. But they respected individuals who took a stand and could defend it.”

Gentile would come to learn those same principles and his math skills could strongly influence men in prison, too.

“The goal is the same,” Gentile says, “just different students and environment. Both sets of students seem to appreciate a direct, no nonsense approach. That fits well with who I am and how I operate.”

School administration had fit well with him, too. He got a master of science degree in that specialty at Purdue University Calumet, which paved the way to becoming the assistant principal and then principal at Rogers from 1980-95.

After that 15-year stint, Gentile became the assistant superintendent at nearby Lake Central School Corp. in St. John. Four years later, he got his first superintendent’s job at Boone Township School in Hebron before coming to Maconaquah in 2001. He retired in 2007, having served as a superintendent for a total of nine years.

It was during his last year at Maconaquah his work with inmates began.

Gentile was at a monthly meeting of Miami County ministers, when the prison chaplain, William Babb, asked for help with Bible study. Gentile, who had been enjoying Bible study at a church, volunteered. That was 6½ years ago.

Once he got involved, Gentile began working with the Plus Program, classes prisoners apply to in an effort to improve themselves.

Gentile’s suggestion to teach Covey’s "7 Habits" as a class was approved.

(In 1989, the late Stephen R. Covey, an author, businessman and educator, published “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” a self-help business book that gained great popularity. The habits revolve around an individual changing his or her mindset by understanding perspectives and viewpoints that differ from himself or herself. You can find a description/explanation of these 7 habits on various Internet websites.)

The class using Covey’s principles “was very well received and became part of the Plus curriculum,” Gentile said. “I have taught two-three classes a year for the past five years.”

He also has taught math classes at the prison for Oakland City University in southern Indiana.

Inmates qualify for the classes Gentile and others — like him, mostly volunteers — teach by having a clean record and exhibiting good behavior. The program director at the prison runs the operation.

Inmates can earn a high school diploma if they don’t have one. Until a few years ago, prisoners could also earn college credits. But state budget cuts axed that part of the program. “Dumb idea,” Gentile says in his up-front way.

Gentile spends three to five hours a week, depending on how many classes he’s teaching, at the prison. He’s now teaching two classes in Bible studies.

“Mostly we read and study the Bible, and we learn from each other, rather than ‘preach’ at each other,” Gentile said.

He practices the same teaching methods he used in public education.

“The key to education is the desire to learn,” Gentile says. “Without that, it is a very difficult job. As a high school teacher, I came up with ways to engage the students emotionally to teach them math.”

Gentile would tell personal stories from his childhood or other family stories.

“Storytelling is an excellent teaching tool,” Gentile said. “Once someone is emotionally engaged it is easier for them to remember what they are taught. It becomes a skill to know when and how often [to tell stories]. Sometimes, when necessary, I would talk the entire period, but in the long run received more productivity. Rarely did a student come without homework to my class, believe it or not!”

The same approach has worked with inmates. “I have found that the desire to learn is strong at the prison,” Gentile said. “But the content must be useful to the prisoners, or nothing happens.”

That’s why he adopted Covey’s seven principles, Gentile said — principles he used for more than 20 years as an administrator. “The men love it, because it is useful, practical and easy once you accept the principles, which are common sense.”

Asked what impressions he has formed about inmates, he responded:

“I have yet to meet a man who hasn’t been severely hampered by his life circumstances. [I’m] not just justifying their choices/mistakes. And they are responsible for their actions.

“The stories break your heart if they tell you. Many I meet want to change, but don’t know how. Therefore, Covey’s work is a good answer for them.”

Are there success stories?

“Many. I know many men who have been through the program and are proactive, working members of society. We, society, want to dispose of those whom we deem as [unsalvageable], depending on how we classify them as black, orange, green, thief, sex offender, murderer. I don’t believe this, and neither does Christ. …

“Most people in prison will come back to society. We should be more conscious of rehabilitation efforts versus isolation in prison. They are someone’s father, son, brother, husband, friend. Many of us have not had to deal with similar life circumstances or made the correct choices.”

Gentile said he has found without proper education, including family life, values and morals, “choices we may consider are not options for those with dysfunctional rearing or no rearing. What might we have done in the same circumstances without parental guidance, abuse, neglect, etc.?”

Gentile doesn’t dispute the punishment or consequences inmates must face, but he wonders about society’s desire “to truly want to assist. There is probably more [money] donated for abandoned animals than released convicts without means. I am sure this is not a politically correct statement. Is a human life not worth as much as a dog?”

Society can be cruel, Gentile notes, adding, “We see it all the time. But we forget that we are not perfect and we all have made mistakes, some illegal, some immoral, some caught, some not.

“If I can help the person overcome his past and become a productive member of society, that’s good. The spiritual work I do will be rewarded by my father in heaven. That’s good enough for me.”

Asked if he has ever been scared in the prison or while being alone with an inmate in a classroom, Gentile replied.

“Never scared. The Lord has given me a heart for these me, and they can see right through you. You can’t be fake, and I have never had a problem being honest and direct.”

Gentile has another connection with the criminal justice system. He and his wife, Lynn, a special needs student aide, have a son, Joe, 28, who is a deputy sheriff in Miami County. Gentile also has two adult children, Tina and Carmine, in Ohio.

Does he have any heroes?

“Patton, Jesus,” Gentile says. “Strange combination, no?”

Not for Carmine (Carmelo) Alfred Gentile, I’d say.

Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at r.mosco@comcast.net.