The students in this small classroom dropped out of high school after hanging with the wrong crowd or struggling to focus. Many simply failed to see the value of an education.
Now, these teens with responsibilities beyond their years gather five mornings a week as they prepare to take the GED (General Educational Development) tests, which most colleges and employers accept in place of a high school diploma.
More 16- to 21-year-olds are finding their way to this classroom – home base for the Out of School Youth Development Center at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Mass. And throughout the United States, particularly in areas hit hard by layoffs, GED classes for all ages are filling up fast.
The down economy is a key reason for the surge. The national unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds in April was 21.5 percent, up from 15 percent a year before, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As teens face competition from adults for even basic grocery-store jobs, it's easier for them to see how essential a high school credential is to their future employment.
"Before I went into the GED program, I was looking for a job. And wherever I went, there were no openings," says Monica Fontanez, a student at the Lowell center who dropped out of high school twice and has worked on and off in low-paying jobs. She hopes to finish the tests before her baby arrives. "I wanted to better my life not only for me but for my child," she says.
Even before the recession deepened, 40 states reported waiting lists for GED classes in the spring of 2008, says Lennox McLendon, executive director of the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium in Washington. In California, test-taking was up 14 percent last year and 9 percent the year before, compared with a normal fluctuation of 1 to 3 percent, says a state official.
"People had well-paying jobs, [and] they didn't need a high school diploma, necessarily," says C.T. Turner, a spokesman for the GED Testing Service in Washington. "But now they're out of a job, and they realize most jobs require you to have a high school credential these days."
Younger students often take a long time to master the material, says Maria Cunha, director of the Lowell center. They can repeat a test in a given subject up to three times a year, but within two years, they must pass all five subjects or start over. Quite a few progress quickly, though, because they now have the motivation that eluded them in high school.
Chanratta Som started prep classes four months ago and has already "graduated" from the program by passing his fifth test. "I didn't really like school.... But as you get older, you start to understand that it's really important," he says.
He was expelled from school at 17 for skipping too much, the result of peer pressure, he says. But in the year since, he's made a new set of friends who are pursuing college. "I know a GED's not going to bring you far in life, so I'm going to enter college after this," he says. His long-term goals: to learn a foreign language and maybe become a veterinarian.
A GED will boost a person's lifetime earnings, but not nearly as much as a college degree. "Simply getting young people to get more credentials at the secondary level is not sufficient to ensure their success beyond high school," says Russell Rumberger, an education professor and director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
That's one reason Ms. Cunha suggested moving the program from a Boys & Girls Club into the less-distracting atmosphere of the community college. "They walk in this building, they're in a college," she says. The GED classes are free, but she reminds students that people taking college courses nearby are paying to be there. "That alone is a self-esteem boost," she says.
Michelle Nickles decided to go for her GED after being inspired by her sister, who did the same and then trained to become a certified nursing assistant. Math has been her hardest subject, but being in a small class helps, Ms. Nickles says. Their teacher has them practicing math every day, sometimes using hands-on aids like a "fractions hamburger" – a foam model cut into wedges.
After passing the GED tests, "I want to go to college for a career," Nickles says, "maybe a dental hygienist." •