Back in the Classroom

Jul 15, 2014

Last month, millions of kids in Virginia collected their high school diplomas.  The nation is at an all-time high, with 80% of students completing 12th grade.  For those who did not get a degree, there’s another option.

Each year, about 800 students take night-time classes, twice a week, at the Adult Learning Center in Charlotteville.  Beyan Johnson is a 35-year-old refugee from Liberia who has a full-time job, but wanted to set an example for his four children.

“I just want them to understand how much education means to me.’”

Bullets kept twenty-three-year-old Ahmed Al-Srya from getting his degree in Iraq.

“I mean I do have high school, but because of my situation – the war, I couldn’t get the diploma.”  

Biology got in the way for 18-year-old Kayla Hubbard.

“I dropped out of school, because I had a little girl.”

And 31-year-old Julie Bradley is back in the classroom after quitting school at 15.

“I went through a lot as a teenager.  Lost my father at that time – just a lot of problems.”

Going back to the life of a student was no easy thing. And the truth is that getting a high school degree today is much harder than it was 15 years ago. Twenty-five-year-old Ombeni Bwiseze, a refugee from The Congo, was dismayed to learn that the GED is no longer taken with pencil and paper.

“You have to type, and it’s just difficult – especially the math.  I can’t do math on a computer.”

But computer skills are essential for the 21st century workplace according to Susan Erno, Regional Program Manager at the Adult Learning Center.

“If you’re not comfortable with technology, you are really left out in a lot of ways.  Most jobs you need to apply for online, so if that is something you cannot do, then you’re truly left out in the cold as far as the job market goes.”

And this year, the GED testing service launched a brand new test – one designed to certify students ready for college.  Instructor Sabra Timmons prepares students for the social studies section with a quiz on continents.

“Russia?  Asia.  Egypt?  Africa.  You guys are great with this.  How about Honduras?  Yeah – it’s actually North America.  And Greenland?  No!  Greenland is actually North America.  Iceland is in Europe.”

If you got those right, don’t gloat.  Math is next, and according to this word problem, there are five kinds of ice cream available for a pick-three sundae:

“Well there’s five different options, and we’re going to choose three of them, so it’s a 5C3.  We can just go ahead and apply that directly into our formula.  Five factorial over three factorial times the quantity five minus three factorial.  You can go ahead and do that out using our shortcut method, and we have our fraction.  We reduce that.  We know that there’s ten possible combinations for that sundae deal.”

It can take years, depending on how advanced students are at the start and how much time they can devote to their studies, but many graduates have gone on to community college or four-year universities.  Among them, Pamela Harris who dropped out of high school along with her friends more than 20 years ago.

“We wanted to be with the in crowd, and the in crowd wasn’t in school.  It was a bore.  I just wasn’t interested.”

But at 38, the mother of three knew she needed an education to make more of her life. 

“I was just ready, and my calling had finally hit me, and I knew what I had to do.”

She studied for the GED, passed the test and is now enrolled at Piedmont Community College, hoping for a career in biotech.  In addition to older students like Harris, there are younger students who want to skip high schools and get on with their lives.  About a quarter of those taking the GED are 16-18.  But as word spreads of a new and more difficult test, that could change.