Richmond Public Library helps adults complete their high school diplomas
on April 12, 2016
Lorena Gonzalez didn’t start high school just to drop out two years later. She wanted to be a nurse. But before her junior year, at age 18, she gave birth to a baby girl and stopped going to class. “Work was what I had to do, you know, being a single mom,” Gonzalez said.
Now she’s 34, and after getting married, raising two children, leaving San Francisco for a house in Richmond and finding work that she loves case-managing foster youth, Gonzalez is determined to finish what she started 19 years ago. “I just feel like it’s my time,” she said.
Through its Literacy for Every Adult Program (LEAP), the Richmond Public Library is now offering scholarships for adults to complete a Career Online High School Diploma course. While LEAP has offered GED courses for years, a high school diploma course is less focused on one big test – like the GED – and more on helping people complete something they might have previously started and have wanted to finish. The GED has also moved in the direction of college readiness in recent years, but people looking to enter the workforce might prefer a high school diploma.
Gonzalez and a young client of hers that she brought along are among the program’s first class of accepted scholarship students. Israel Clarke, a 22-year-old Richmond resident, is the third. Clarke attended Pinole Valley High School. During her junior year she started a job at Starbucks. “I was so eager to become an adult,” Clarke said. “I was 18 at the time and I thought I could work and go to school full time. And I just, you know, found out that it doesn’t work that way.” Clarke tried a different online diploma program but it was still too much. “You really have to commit a lot of time to school and, at the time, money was more important,” said Clarke.
The accredited high school diploma course the library is now offering as part of its programming is available to anyone for a fee of $1,095 online. But last year some libraries in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento started offering scholarships for students to complete the program. The libraries found that the course had a much higher completion rate when offered with these funds, said Katy Curl, the Richmond Public Library’s director.
The support libraries offer to help students complete this program is invaluable: Students have computers to use; funding to encourage completion; and support from library staff and their fellow students, said Curl.
“Learning is not just understanding, it has a lot to do with support,” said LEAP director Sherry Drobner. She said that through the library’s new scholarships, each student is assigned an online support counselor on LEAP’s staff to help them along their way. Students are also encouraged to call or email Drobner or other staff members at any time.
Gonzalez said that after setting up her online account for the program, she’s already received an email from her counselor. “It’s little things like that that make you feel supported, you know,” Gonzalez said.
“The importance of a program like this in Richmond can’t be overstated,” said Drobner. One out of four adults in Richmond doesn’t have a diploma, according to the 2014 Richmond Census. “People are really marginalized by the lack of a diploma or GED. They’re left out of so many opportunities. I think the fact that the city has the foresight to run a program like this is a testimony about really caring about your community,” she said.
“There are statistics that say having an actual diploma gives you a little bit of a leg up and may actually translate to better pay over your lifetime,” Curl said. According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 people with a high school diploma could make $1,600 more a month than people with a GED. They were also 28 percent more likely to earn a bachelors degree, according to the US Census Bureau.
And they pointed out that people often don’t complete those degrees for practical reasons. “It’s life circumstances that make it difficult to succeed in school,” Drobner said. “It has nothing to do with intelligence or how smart you are. It has to do with, could you make it to school? Did you have health problems?”
“A lot of people come in to get their GED who really don’t have the confidence. They often think they’re not smart,” because they didn’t make it through high school, Drobner continued. “That’s something we try to do during orientation—show that everyone’s got the intelligence in there that maybe hasn’t been recognized. That really is a barrier for people who don’t think [getting a GED] is possible.”
For some of the new online diploma students, it’s important to complete their diploma rather than earn their GED. “To be honest, I don’t want a GED,” Clarke said. “My friends don’t have that, my brother doesn’t have that.” Clarke said she’s choosing to get her high school diploma because that’s what her friends have. “It’s important for me to finish,” she said.
For years, Clarke said, she’s compared herself to others when she overhears people talking about where they went to high school. “It is that thing that kind of haunts you,” said Clarke. “It’s just one of those things you think about when you open your old yearbook and you say, ‘I wonder what that person’s doing.’” Today, she said, all her friends from high school are at universities.
LEAP has offered standard classroom-based GED classes through funding from the city of Richmond, the state library, private grants and the federal government since 1984. Drobner sees between 600 and 800 students a year through this program.
But even with years of GED experience, there are many reasons Drobner and Curl are excited about funding for the new diploma program. The first reason, Curl said, is that in 2014 the GED moved online and the curriculum became much, much harder, narrowing its focus on college readiness. Nationwide, pass rates were dropping, she said. “People at our program who had started coursework had to restart after this change. That was hard on our students,” Curl said.
The GED is one big test, like the SAT. “For some people, testing is going to be the most difficult thing,” Curl said. The high school diploma program allows for a slower-paced back-and-forth study and quiz format. It’s also better for people who want go straight to a job, Curl said. She and Drobner hope to align the adults who come to LEAP with the right program for their needs, and they see the addition of a diploma option as one more avenue by which to help. “The more options you have to reach the goals you’re trying to reach, the better,” Curl said.
This specific online diploma program also lets a student transfer credits from high school. “You have a number of people who are partway through high school,” Curl said. “All they need to do is pick up one last group of credits, and they can finish in a matter of months.”
Gonzalez is in this boat. She transferred credits from three separate high schools, and she’s starting this program as a junior, right where she left off. “It says if I continue at this pace, I’ll be done in about five or six months,” she said.
Because of the success in city libraries over the past year, last fiscal year the California state library system allocated $1 million for a pilot program. Each city library staff, like Richmond’s, tells the state library how many scholarships they would like. Scholarships are valued at about $1,000 each, and the library is expected to match the amount they receive through fundraising. The Richmond library was granted 25 scholarships last summer. Since then Drobner has been working hard to raise $20,000 to match the $25,000 goal, creating a total of 50 spots.
LEAP is in the process of accepting 27 students into the diploma scholarship program. Curl said they are expecting to fill all 50 spots very soon.
Any Richmond resident with a library card can register online with LEAP to apply for a scholarship. To be accepted, the three students so far have completed a prerequisite course online and passed an interview affirming they each have sufficient time to devote to the program. In order to stay on track, the students are asked to put 10 hours of work into the course per week, two of those hours at the library literacy center.
Gonzalez said that one reason she wants to get her diploma is that she wants to make more money. “I’m lucky, I have a career, I love my work,” she said. But she’s worked at her job for nine years and she feels like there’s nowhere else for her to advance. She’s seen people hired after her be paid more and move up the ranks faster.
Plus, she said, “I want to be able to give my kids what they didn’t have.” If her daughter wants to go to a university, she wants to be able to pay for it. “But the biggest thing is that this is something I want to accomplish for myself. To tell myself, ‘Hey, I did it.’ It took me this long, but I did it,” said Gonzalez. When she completes this program, she’s planning to enroll in nursing school full time.
Clarke hopes to enroll at Berkeley City College to study business. “I want to be my own boss,” she said. “I want to be able to say, ‘No, I’m coming into work at three.’” Clarke said that she’s tired of using excuses to not complete what she’s wanted to for years. She doesn’t think anyone can ever be too old to get her high school diploma, or work towards accomplishing her goals. “If you’re dead you can’t do it. If you’re breathing, you can do something. You can do a lot of something,” Clake said
Gonzalez agrees. Even though her kids joke with her that she’s “old,” Gonzalez said, she’s grateful to them and to her husband for being supportive of her going back to school. When she began her courses at home, she said, “My kids know: Mom has her earphones on—don’t bother her.”
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