Going for the GED
by Carl Hoffman
Tasha Smith dropped out of school in the ninth grade. By some measurements, she was doing okay: she had a job, as a nurse's aid at a hospital in eastern Tennessee. But Smith, now 17 and the mother of a one-year-old daughter, wanted to become a registered nurse. "I wanted a better job, and to get one I needed my GED [General Equivalency Degree]," she says. "I didn't want to be a high school dropout forever."
Emma Hill dropped out of high school when she was 17. "I got into a bit of trouble," she admits, "and skipped a lot of classes." Now 19 and the mother of an infant son, Hill attends GED classes five mornings a week. "I wanted to show my little boy that I could do it."
Hill's and Smith's stories are not unusual in Tennessee, which has more adults age 25 and older without high school diplomas than 48 of the 50 states. That didn't used to matter. But today most factories require high school diplomas, and "even the army doesn't want you anymore unless you've got a high school diploma," says Linda Lobertini, a teacher of adult education in Campbell County, Tennessee. In 1987, Tennessee, abetted by the Appalachian Regional Commission, declared a "War on Illiteracy" in 18 counties—Bledsoe, Campbell, Claiborne, Clay, Cocke, Cumberland, Fentress, Grundy, Hancock, Jackson, Meigs, Monroe, Overton, Pickett, Scott, Sequatchie, Van Buren, and White. As the counties received literacy program funds from ARC and from Tennessee ($500,000 a year and $125,000 a year, respectively, from 1987 to 1995) their GED rates soared, and people like Emma Hill and Tasha Smith found themselves with a second chance.
Although most counties offered some form of adult education, the ARC funds were the "first money we had to run full-time adult literacy programs in each of the 18 counties," says Teddy Cook, assistant director of adult education for the Tennessee Department of Education. "The money allowed us to have a full-time person in each county to recruit students as well as seek additional funds," Cook says. In Claiborne County, where 62 percent of adults age 25 and older did not have a high school diploma in 1988, that person was Sherrie Claiborne. In Campbell County, where 52 percent of the county's adults never finished high school and 32 percent tested below a sixth-grade reading level, it was Rita Goins.
"For the first month, I worked out of my car," remembers Goins. "I borrowed books and begged them for free from book companies. I went through the county's public housing projects, knocking on doors. I handed out fliers at the grocery stores, and I even did the teaching."
Claiborne, who knocked on doors as well, remembers that no one admitted being unable to read. "We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get people to feel unashamed of coming to us for help when they couldn't read more than a word or two," she says. Slowly, television ads from people like first lady Barbara Bush and music legend Johnny Cash helped flush people out. At the same time, Claiborne beat the bushes at churches and Lions Clubs for volunteer tutors.
By the end of her first year, Claiborne had 25 students, taught one-on-one by volunteers at the local library. Goins had 70, taught in a tiny room at the LaFollette Housing Authority in LaFollette, Tennessee. "The students had real negative attitudes," remembers Goins. "They thought they'd fail from the very beginning because people had always given up on them." For the eager Goins, however, "those 70 students were the greatest!"
Today, 560 students attend Goins's 14 GED classes (students with an 11th- or 12th-grade education who are just about ready to take the test), 9 literacy classes (students with an 8th- or 9th-grade reading level) and 8 basic skills classes (6th-grade level or below) in 17 locations throughout the county. Claiborne has 800 students spread between the Adult Learning Center in Tazewell and seven satellite locations, including several manufacturing plants. In both counties, classes now run 12 hours a day. All told, each year Claiborne enrolls and graduates as many students as the county's largest high school. "We found that if we could get one family member to trust us, then the rest of the family would come to classes, too," says Claiborne. "Once we ended up with eight members of one family." Students are now taught by a cadre of professionals and volunteers, including some former students like Arlene Ford, who got her GED in 1994 and now tutors other adults two nights a week at LaFollette Middle School. "I loved every bit of taking classes and getting my GED," she says. "It made me feel good about myself. Now I enjoy it because I can encourage the people I tutor who feel just like I used to. Hopefully I can help them."
"People like Arlene have a rapport and are respected by the other adults," says Goins.
A Tool for Success
The tiny room Goins once used at the LaFollette Housing Authority is now a spacious, renovated classroom and office, served by two full-time teachers, Mary Michelle Gillum and Linda Lobertini. A vase of fresh flowers brightens the desk at the front of the classroom; encouraging slogans like "The most important tool for success is the belief that you can succeed" line the wall. Students, ranging in age from 17 to 73, enroll on their own initiative or are referred by the Tennessee Department of Human Services. "The adults coming back want it so much that they make great students," says Lobertini, a veteran public school teacher. "No two are the same, and it's unusual if any two are working on the same level at once," she says. "Most are single mothers. They feel hopeless and have no self-esteem. It's our job to show them that they can learn to read or graduate. I've been teaching for 30 years, and I've never done anything as rewarding as this."
Adds Gillum, "We work a lot on setting goals, and the primary one we demand is the GED. Doing this, you really feel like you're having an impact."
In Claiborne County, Sherrie Claiborne instituted a program for people who almost finished high school. Instead of having them take the GED test, she tries to get them to finish their high school degrees by taking adult classes sanctioned by the county board of education. Malinda Sue Ramsey, for instance, was a senior when she got married and dropped out. Eight years later she decided to go back, when she had to turn down a substitute teaching position because she had no degree. After earning one credit of English and one half credit of health education at the Adult Learning Center in Tazewell, she graduated. Now she's finishing her second year as a Vista volunteer for Habitat for Humanity International, which has asked her to stay on when her grant ends.
Ultimately, when it comes to adult literacy, what people like Teddy Cook emphasize isn't so much the effect on individual students but the cumulative effects of a more literate population. Not only do people get off the welfare roles and get back to work, but more important, she says, "We have evidence that when parents go back to school, there is an effect on their children. Parents suddenly understand the importance of education, and their children's performance and attendance improve."
All true, says Arlene Ford, the GED mom who now tutors other adults for Campbell County. "I've got a 13-year-old son, and when I was getting my GED, I'd run home and help him with his homework. We'd work together, and that just made me even more determined."
"We expect adult literacy rates in Tennessee to continue to climb as our education outreach efforts effectively change the attitudes of former high school dropouts and adults without basic reading skills and help pave the way to a new world of understanding and opportunity for many Tennesseans and their families," says Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist.
Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.