While many of his students have grown up with computers, Ron Propst is amazed at how few understand Microsoft Office.
Propst has taught business education for the Department of Corrections for 13 years, and the cornerstone of the program is to teach Microsoft Office's four main programs: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access. His students start with a typing course, then begin the four main applications. And whether an older student or a younger one, the reaction is often the same.
"There's been an exposure to computers for the most part, but what's so amazing is the lack of knowledge on Office," Propst said. "I get young inmates in here and they'll tell you about all the applications [they had on smartphones], but when you say, 'Have you used Word?' their eyes glaze over.
"At one point in time there was a belief that younger inmates would know all this. I'm just surprised they don't know it."
Propst has taught at SCI Benner Township since June 2018, but prior to that he was at SCI Smithfield for 12 years. His job at Smithfield was the result of incredible chance.
When he retired from the Army—where he served for 21 years—Propst applied to various jobs with the state, including one as a business teacher for the DOC. He never heard back for 18 months, so he started working as a bank manager.
He finally got the call to interview for the business teacher job, but decided against it. That very week, Propst met a customer at his branch who taught adult basic education in SCI Smithfield and strongly encouraged Propst to reconsider.
Thirteen years later, he's happy he did.
"I enjoy teaching," Propst said. "This particular class, the business program, I enjoy the satisfaction of getting students who know nothing about Microsoft Office and at the end I can see they're proficient in all four programs. That's what's rewarding to me."
Currently Propst has 40 students split between the morning and afternoon. Ten students are working towards their one technology credit towards their Commonwealth Secondary Diplomas, and 30 are volunteers (students who already have a diploma) who are working towards a certificate. His course is 120-hours long and includes typing, Microsoft Office and Discovering Computers, which is teacher-led instruction about computers, smartphones and modern technology.
Propst's biggest struggle of teaching within a prison has recently been overcome thanks to policy changes. Originally his class was a vocational course, but in January 2018 it became part of the education curriculum to earn a diploma. The change actually helped Propst clear the biggest struggle about teaching in prison: keeping the software current.
"The DOC has done a really good job of keeping the software updated," Propst said. "That definitely helps."
His business labs consist of 12-18 individual workstations with Office and the typing program installed. The class also is working through a book called Discovering Computers, which teaches students about what is a smartphone, what is the internet and how do they work. The book and his handouts help supplement the lessons since Propst can't have the hardware to show them, like a smartphone.
Like all DOC teachers, Propst rarely gets to hear from those he's taught once they're out. But several years ago he did hear about one student who succeeded thanks to the business class.
The facility's principal received a phone call from a business about a recent reentrant—and graduate of Propst's class—and the business was curious about the reentrant's certifications. They planned to hire the him, but they didn't know about the coursework or what he did in prison.
"They just wanted to make sure those certifications were valid," Propst said. "He did the hard work, I was just the facilitator."