MAKING GED DIPLOMAS MORE ACCESSIBLE
At a meeting in the fall of 2001, members of the JCPS Adult Education Advisory Council were discussing the new GED test to be unveiled in January 2002. Adult learners who had previously passed only part of the test would have to take the entire test again once it had changed. Council members worried that this would discourage potential test-takers.
One board member, the director of the Louisville Free Public Library, saw a unique opportunity. He offered to pay testing fees for learners taking the test before 2002—if the tests could be given in libraries. He also supplied some funds for outreach and challenged others to match his support. From his point of view, this was a win-win situation. Tests could be held in convenient locations; the financial barrier would be removed; and more adults would be exposed to the library. The Free GED Testing Campaign was born.A Logistical Challenge
Staff surveyed local libraries to find meeting rooms large enough for testing sessions and then put together a schedule of test dates. Practical problems arose. Library hours had to be extended to accommodate the seven-hour test. Trained test proctors had to be found. With only a few months to go before the new test, advertising and outreach had to begin immediately. When the demand proved greater than anticipated, staff scoured surrounding counties for additional GED tests. When planners realized that test-takers would need food during the full-day test, local unions stepped in to provide food and transport it to the testing sites. Because everything had to be done within just a few months, making all the arrangements for the free testing was a major challenge.The Partnership
The Free GED Testing Campaign was the result of a partnership among JCPS Adult and Continuing Education, KentuckianaWorks, the Louisville Free Public Library, the Literacy Foundation, and local unions. Funds came largely from the Louisville Free Public Library and KentuckianaWorks, which matched the library contribution to pay for test fees and promotion of the campaign. JCPSAE provided instruction and the official Practice Test to all who needed it. Cooperation and support also came from the Jefferson Technical College GED Testing Center and the Kentucky Department for Adult Education and Literacy. This partnership worked so well, according to one participant, because "together we looked at all the angles" to eliminate barriers and solve logistical problems.Public Outreach
The campaign ran ads on the radio and in newspapers, sent out press releases, placed notices in newsletters, and sent fliers home with elementary school students. Mailings were sent to students who had dropped out of school or out of a GED program, to those who had passed only part of the GED test, to Head Start parents, and to participants in GED instruction on Kentucky Educational Television. JCPS promoted the free testing in its adult learning centers, and staff did interviews on the four major TV stations about the campaign.Success
In the end, the outreach was so effective that test sessions continued to be added right up until the end of the year. Test sessions were opened to adults from surrounding counties, and some people drove up to three hours in snow to take the test. Testing continued through December 29, with some 200 people showing up at the DuValle Education Center on the final day. Staff from DuValle, a long-established learning center at the heart of a refurbished public (now mixed-income) housing project, stepped in to help as other testing sites began closing for the holidays, providing a testing site and lunch for the test-takers.
A survey of participants revealed that the $30 test fee is indeed a barrier for many; 68 percent said the fact that the test was free was what persuaded them to take it. Sixty-one percent noted that offering the test in convenient library locations and on Saturdays also made a difference.
A WINNING CAMPAIGN
In all, 1,504 adults took the GED test as a result of the Free GED Testing Campaign, and 70 percent passed. This represented a 100 percent increase compared to the first six months of that same year. In fiscal year 2001-02, 2,319 adults earned their GED diplomas, compared with 1,074 the previous year. The total cost of the campaign, exclusive of food, staff, and in-kind expenses, was $57,500.
JCPSAE staff also credit the campaign with increasing awareness of the adult education programs available in the community. Those not yet prepared to take the GED exam were referred to appropriate classes. During the first six months of the fiscal year following the campaign, 6,167 people enrolled in the JCPSAE adult basic education program, compared to 3,655 the previous year.
The National Association of Counties recognized the Free GED Testing Campaign with its Achievement Award, presented in 2002. Partly as a result of Louisville's campaign, the state has allocated $350,000 for free GED testing statewide through June 30, 2004.
Ronald was one test-taker with impressive work experience. Now retired, he had been a regional manager for a national discount store, had run a garage, and was a self-taught pilot. He wanted to drive a bus for JCPS, a job requiring a GED diploma. When he heard about the Free GED Testing Campaign, he decided to take the test, some 43 years, he pointed out, since he had been in school. Although he had taken college classes, he was embarrassed that he had never completed high school, a fact he hid from his children. Another test-taker was Tanya, a soft-spoken young mother of three, who worked full-time and took classes at Jefferson Community College. She needed her GED diploma to continue at JCC, and both her teachers and her employer urged her to take the free test.
Both took the free GED test and passed. Ronald says he feels better about himself; his lack of a high school diploma is "a burden I don't have to carry anymore." And Tanya plans to continue her studies: "I have my GED and ...I can move forward now."
The In-School GED Program
High school dropout rates were rising in Jefferson County, and school staff were concerned. They also knew that dropouts often wasted several years before entering a GED program—if they ever did. Moreover, although JCPSAE serves more than 1,500 young adults (ages 16-21) a year in GED classes, those who earn a GED diploma are still counted as dropouts by the school system.
A study of GED students in the county found that dropouts regretted missing important social events at school, such as their graduation and prom. Believing that these social aspects of school might be a useful "hook" to keep potential dropouts enrolled, JCPS adult education and three high schools formed a partnership to provide GED instruction in the high schools and keep students connected to school activities and supportive services. The Kentucky Department of Adult Education and Literacy was supportive of the project, as was the superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools.
The high school and adult education staff together wrestled with several difficult issues in creating this program, among them how to pay for it. State funds could not be used because the adult education unit is not allowed to serve students enrolled in school. The high schools ultimately decided to pay for the program out of their operating budgets. Principals were reluctant at first, fearing that such a program would seem like an "easy out" for many students. This proved not to be the case, but to prevent this, the partners set the entry requirements very carefully.
They seek students who have the best likelihood of finishing the program and passing the GED test in the current year, believing that it would be difficult to sustain students' motivation over a longer period. Assessments help them to make these judgments. Principals also were reassured when adult education staff made very clear that the principals and school staff were the gatekeepers—the ones who chose the students—and had control over the program. Once these issues were settled, the principals became strong leaders for the program. An issue currently under debate is how best to serve English language learners, when appropriate, in such a program.
The partnership is governed by formal written agreements renewed annually, and JCPSAE has published guidelines describing the program, eligibility requirements, the referral process, the curriculum, requirements for completion, and graduation arrangements. The high schools select the students and provide classrooms and materials, and JCPSAE provides the instructors. Program costs are covered by the high schools. The high school gets average daily attendance (ADA) credit for the students until they pass the GED test, and they are counted in the high school completion rates, with a notation on their records that they earned a GED diploma.
The program is an alternative for students identified as being at risk of dropping out, mainly those who are not on grade level or who are failing because of poor attendance. School and adult education staff emphasize that the program is not an "early exit" alternative to the traditional high school program, and that it's not designed for seriously troubled students or those with special education needs. Guidance counselors, administrators, and teachers can refer students to the program. They are tested and accepted only when the in-school GED classes are determined to be the most appropriate placement for them.
Students must be at least sixteen years old and score a grade equivalent of at least 8.0 in reading and math on the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE). Students and their parents must attend an orientation for the program and sign an agreement outlining the requirements for participation, which include maintaining a 95 percent attendance rate and demonstrating continuous academic progress. No high school credit is given for the GED classes, and students successfully completing the program receive a GED diploma, not a regular high school diploma.
Students can be removed from the program for failing to comply with the requirements. Students can use school transportation and participate in all school functions (except athletics), including the breakfast program, their prom, and graduation. They are subject to the same rules and regulations as regular high school students. The program is open-entry/open-exit and operates on the school-year calendar—no classes are held during the summer. Students must attend three one-hour class periods daily until they complete the GED program requirements, and they must work or search for a job for at least fifteen hours weekly. Classes range in size from a minimum of ten to a recommended maximum of twenty.
Students are withdrawn from school to take the GED test (because federal and state regulations prohibit students from taking the test while still enrolled in high school) and then re-enrolled on the first day following the test. While they await their scores, they work on career exploration and employment skills or investigate postsecondary education options. Some help tutor other students. If students don't pass the test, they can remain in the program until they are ready to take it again, and the teachers work with them on the specific areas they failed.
Once they pass the GED test, they have completed the program and can attend the regular high school graduation or a GED graduation. Since these partnerships are fairly new (the first began in 2000), there are few data on results. However, data on program outcomes will be available soon. JCPS began tracking these students, along with regular graduates, in 2002 and will continue to do so for five years after they receive their GED diploma.
A CLOSER LOOK: FAIRDALE HIGH SCHOOL MAGNET AND CAREER ACADEMY
Located in a rural area outside Louisville, Fairdale High School is a campus with several buildings spread around an athletic field. Most of the 750 students attend classes in the main building, but students in some magnet programs and the GED program are housed in another building. According to the school principal, students join the GED program because they like the school, even though they have not been successful in regular classes. The familiar setting makes it easier for them. She said they "blossom" in the GED class, because "they see hope again."
Eight students were in the GED class in March 2003, sitting at tables in an unused science lab. Asked why they liked the program, the students emphasized its flexibility—"being able to work at your own pace"—and being treated as an adult. They liked the slower pace of the classes, the personal attention from the teacher, and their ability to focus on just one subject at a time. This was a contrast to their experience in the regular high school, where they had been overwhelmed by the pace and volume of the work.
Most had jobs at places like an auto repair garage, restaurant, or discount store. Their aspirations after completing the program included attending college, enrolling in beauty school, working in a family-owned auto shop, and joining the military. All were well aware that their future prospects would be limited without a diploma. As one student said, "It's my only alternative. I wasn't making it in high school."