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.

Ann Hermes/ The Christian Science Monitor/File
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.'

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.

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.

“The relationships that we develop and nurture with students are of utmost importance because they will not care about what we know until they know that we care,” says Jason Marshall, the director of GED Plus.

Kathiel Matos-Curry attended GED Plus more than six years ago after dropping out of high school in her freshman year. Just hearing from her GED teacher that she would pass the exam in two months inspired her. She passed, and today she is our office manager. She motivates students to focus on their education. “If I can do it, so can they,” she says.

And yet, I can also see how much further a program like ours still needs to go. We graduate 50 percent of our students – the same as the national average for GED programs, which serve 700,000 students each year.

You could argue our graduation rate is a decent showing, considering the challenges our students face. We’re often pointed to as a “success story” in Boston education. But I would argue for even more safety-net assistance – mental health and social services, especially for students who experience trauma, homelessness, and gang-related problems.

A young man in my class is trying to get over the death of his older brother and best friend who were shot and killed a year apart from each other. Yes, he’s pursuing his education, but he also drinks to numb the hurt. He needs help from an on-site counselor, but we have only one full-time counselor to assist 64 students.

Since September, when I started teaching, three women have entered my class at least eight months pregnant. They gave birth before they finished their GED preparation. They are welcome to come back to the program – which is free – but they can’t afford child care.

The majority of our graduates go on to job training programs or community college. I take pride in that. But sometimes their futures aren’t so bright. Last week, one of my students was forced to drop out of our program because street rivals threatened him every day on his way to school. He still wanted to earn his GED so he could become a chef to obtain a better life for his daughter. But he was afraid.

I have learned that I cannot play superman and save everyone. But at least I can prepare students who stay with the program for their GED, and assure them that if anyone has their best interest at heart, I do.

Nakia Hill is a journalism graduate student at Emerson College in Boston and an intern on the Commentary desk at The Christian Science Monitor.

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