Inmate earns Northport diploma
Christopher J. Hammersley was 17 when convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to three to 15 years in prison. On Monday, after a unanimous vote by the Northport Public School Board of Education, the now 19-yearold former Northport student was awarded his high school diploma.
The physical diploma is in the care of his mother, Carla Hammersley, who is holding it until Christopher gets out of Jackson State Prison. He’s expected to be released in June 2013.
“The idea that his school community supported him despite the two terrible crimes he committed ... that has probably saved his life,” Hammersley said. “Without knowing that people cared about him he would not have endured.”
Hammersley in 2010 robbed a Traverse City gas station at knife point for about $250. He is also serving a sentence of 17 months to 10 years for breaking and entering with intent for a Leelanau Township incident prior to that.
At the time of his crimes, Hammersley was a high school junior needing five credits to graduate. Because of funding cuts, prisons in Michigan no longer offer classes for prisoners who have not yet finished school. They are given the option of earning the Michigan GED High School Equivalency Certificate, but Christopher wanted to complete high school.
The Northport district took advantage of a program administered by the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District to put together a correspondence curriculum that included math and a senior English class. Hammersley received his assignments and books via mail; he mailed his completed homework back to Jeff Tropf, Northport superintendent.
Tropf characterized Hammersley as a good, smart student who made some bad decisions.
“If you’re going to advocate for kids, kids make mistakes,” Tropf said. “He made a couple of catastrophic mistakes. He’s still a great kid.”
Tropf, who calls Northport an “intimate community,” acknowledges that if he had been the victim of Christopher’s crimes, he might have felt differently.
“I think people will line up on both sides of this and I’m comfortable with that,” he said.
Hammersley also needed an elective class, so community members rallied, creating an Independent Literature Study that included a book club made up of six members of the Northport community who read and discussed novels. Not being able to join the discussion, Christopher would instead journal his thoughts and mail them home; his journals were then shared among book club members.
In all, eight novels were read, including Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, “The Scarlet Letter,” which Hammersley said Christopher especially liked. “It’s about redemption,” Hammersley said. “He could really relate.”
The TBAISD project allows students to complete coursework and demonstrate proficiency while not sitting in a classroom. Several students have taken advantage of the program, but none have ever been incarcerated, said Ty Wessell, an instructional services consultant with the TBAISD.
“We all grew from the experience,” said Wessell, who was a member of the book club. “I have confidence that when he gets out he’s going to be successful. Whatever happens, this was a good experience for him and for us.”
Area students are also required to do a senior project worth one credit before they can graduate. Christopher took a parenting class in prison and did his project on authoritative parenting. Part of the project is doing a presentation to the community and board members have made it clear that Christopher is expected to give his presentation to the board when he comes home.
Carla Hammersley says Christopher was high and drunk when he committed his crimes. Before getting involved in drugs he had been a well-liked student, she said.
“No one — no one in this community could believe it was him,” she said. “Drugs and alcohol ... there’s a whole population of kids out there who are lost.”
Christopher plans to enter into in a 12-step program after being released, his mother said. “There are many, many people waiting to help him when he comes home,” she said.
Tropf said Christopher has paid for his mistakes many times over.
“It is my guess that Christopher will be living back in the Northport community and will attempt to get on with his life,” Tropf said.