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A GED safety net for high school dropouts

Programs like mine can help high school dropouts earn the equivalent of a high school diploma by passing the GED exam. As a GED teacher, I find success means helping these students clear hurdles outside of class, and giving them a safe, nonjudgmental place to learn in class.

By Nakia Hill / April 26, 2012

Students in Lowell, Mass., check the computers at Middlesex Community College during a break in the GED prep class on May 13, 2009. Monitor intern and GED teacher Nakia Hill writes: 'My students often feel like everything and everyone is against them.'

Ann Hermes/ The Christian Science Monitor/File

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Boston

It is gut-wrenching that 1.2 million students in US public schools fail to earn their high school diploma each year. But many of these students do have another option. They can pursue the equivalent – a General Education Development diploma, or GED.

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I teach students preparing for the GED exam at a program called GED Plus in Boston. This state-sponsored adult education service deals with the most difficult cases – “at-risk” young adults aged 16 to 24.

While teens in mainstream high schools are choosing a dress or tux for prom this month, my students are studying for their exam as parents, ex-offenders transitioning back to society, non-English speakers, and patients combating disease. They are trying to find affordable and safe housing, fighting for custody of their children, and looking for work.

I’m learning that success means helping students with the hurdles they face out-of-class and giving them a safe, nonjudgmental place to learn in class. That’s the only way they can get over this most basic educational finish line.

But even achieving that is much harder than it sounds.

First, many of my students lack basic knowledge of reading and math, though they are resilient and brave – and creative. I’ve seen some startlingly off-base approaches to long division, essay writing, and adding and subtracting fractions. We focus on relearning the fundamentals.

Studying for the GED exam is simply not comparable to the SAT experience. My students often feel like everything and everyone is against them.

“The government don’t care about us!” one blurted out during class after I explained the GED requirements. He is 23 years old and dropped out of high school after getting arrested and charged with possession of a firearm. He served three years in prison.

I empathize with these learners, and understand the stigmas they face in the outside world. Yes, the government will be against you, I say, if you break the law and don’t take full advantage of programs like this one. I do not believe in using obstacles as excuses.

That said, these students do need help clearing the hurdles in their lives, and our program works hard to do that. It offers counseling, links students with organizations that employ inner-city youth, and assists them in transitioning to college.

We also offer small classes that give educators the flexibility to work one-on-one with students (I’m teaching 10 students this semester). After about a week that includes a lot of individual attention, I find most of my students comprehend the material. Many teachers are also social workers. We emphasize positive reinforcement and confidence building.

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