Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
What do a college president, an astronaut, a preschool teacher, and a U.S. Surgeon General have in common? Each of these people dropped out of school as teenagers. Years later, they enrolled in adult education to improve their lives.
There are many reasons why someone may drop out of school. There are social aspects – students may feel they don’t fit in. Sometimes teens need to take care of family members or work to contribute to the household. And most recently, with the pandemic, there are the challenges of virtual and hybrid learning.
“We may have to work through layers of trauma,” said Stan Schauer, North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s Assessment Director and State GED Administrator. “Some may come from war-torn countries, or experienced homelessness, bullying, or addictions. The single most important thing we do is build relationships with the students when they come back.”
Jennifer Frueh, director of Region 5 Adult Learning Center in Fargo, agrees.
“To get at the heart of education, your student needs to know you care about them before you get to the academics,” she said. “They come to us hungry. You have to get to their belly before you get to their brain and make them feel safe and welcome.”
Lack of education and literacy skills prevent an adult’s ability to succeed and advance in the workforce or even help their children with homework. Adult education offers a second chance for students to improve their academic and career skills.
DPI has free programs that help individuals over the age of 16 obtain basic academic and educational skills to be productive workers, family members, and citizens. Through the DPI Adult Learning Centers (ALC), students can get “basic” high school instruction, digital literacy skills, workplace and career planning and readiness, English as a Second Language (EL) classes, and GED preparation and testing.
With eight Regional ALC and satellite sites across North Dakota, thousands of students can be taught virtually at public schools, community colleges, or at home. Most classes are held during the day, with night classes available, also.
Transportation, employment, and childcare are some of the challenges students face when looking at enrolling and staying on track with class work.
“Keeping students in school and working at the same time, can be hard,” said Frueh. “Sometimes we work with the students’ employer to ensure they are able to attend classes. We once had a student rearrange his lunch schedule so he could Zoom into class from his car.”
The Fargo ALC has also found a way to deal with the shortage of childcare options.
“We have a unique program funded by Fargo Public Schools and United Way of Cass Clay called ‘Even Start Family Literacy Program,’” Frueh explained. “Kids six weeks to school age can come to school with their parents and be involved in early childhood education. We follow a curriculum, have standards to meet, provide assessments, and give parental assistance classes as well. We serve 70 to 80 kids each year and there is a waiting list. The parents really appreciate the extra support.”
One of those parents is Maeza. She was involved in the Fargo EL program for four years and was able to bring three of her four children to Even Start while she attended class. Originally from Eritrea, Africa, Maeza heard about the classes from a friend.
“The teachers are so nice,” she said. “They understood I was feeling scared. I didn’t know English, how to communicate, how things work in America, I had a lot of questions. I learned to be confident in front of people I didn’t know and so did my children. School has helped them so much, they are now at the top of their classes in reading!”
Maeza explained some of the benefits she received from the classes.
“They helped me like family, they gave me a chance. I learned how to apply for a job, what to say in an interview, what to wear. I was nervous. In America, people expect you to look at them in the eye, in our country that was not good.”
Meaza and her husband work very hard to provide for their children. They recently bought a new house, and she wants to get her GED so she can qualify for a job working in home (health) care.
“Those soft skills are so important,” said Sara Mitzel, DPI’s Adult Education Program Manager, Adult Education Lead, and Assistant Director of Assessment. “Teaching students how to communicate with co-workers and the importance of being on time are just a couple of examples of how we prepare them for employment.”
A large portion of students come from Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR). In North Dakota, if a person is incarcerated in a state facility and does not have a high school diploma, by law, they have to work towards it.
“Adult Learning Center sites, including DOCR, hold a graduation ceremony for students,” said Mitzel. “Listening to students and watching families at graduation is life-changing. For some of these individuals, it is their biggest accomplishment to date.”
Celebrating milestones is important. In Fargo they do a GED graduation ceremony in the spring, along with a preschool graduation for those Even Start children going into kindergarten.
“When we can prepare those kiddos for kindergarten, that benefits the child and the entire class,” said Frueh. “We also have an EL awards ceremony, celebrating what they bring to the school and community. And we celebrate milestones in the classroom: employment, citizenship, home ownership, driver’s license, etc. We also took extra effort to recognize our essential workers during the pandemic.”
The North Dakota GED pass rate is one of the highest in the nation. For the 2020-21 school year, 453 GEDs were earned, which equates to an 86 percent pass rate.
“Year after year, North Dakota is in the top three (states) of GED testing in the U.S.,” said Schauer. “Every year, our goal is to be number one and we’ve been number two twice, so we are almost there.”
The GED is not an easy way out, either. The test is rigorous and respected by employers, the military, and colleges, so North Dakota has developed curriculum to ensure students are prepared when it comes time to take the test.
There is also an organization that provides support for educators, students and partners across the state.
“In addition to the collaboration and work that happens at the local Adult Learning Centers, The North Dakota Association for Lifelong Learning (NDALL) organization, composed of adult learning centers, alternative education programs, and state staff, support our local programs in meeting professional development needs,” said Mitzel. “NDALL holds a conference each year and assists to provide other networking opportunities to our local sites. Because of the size of our state, we know each other well, therefore we can maximize our efforts to meet student needs effectively.”
Schauer emphasized the importance of this program.
“This is an investment in the people of North Dakota,” he said. “If we didn’t have this option, those students are more likely to end up on state services and/or incarcerated. With adult education, we help get them employed, which means they are earning money and contributing to the local and state workforce.”