Last month, Andy Burgess of Memphis received his GED diploma. With his sights set on a career in the transportation industry, Burgess knew the high school equivalency certificate would make him a more viable job candidate.
Geamnie Valentine, from left, instructor James Calhoun and student Temicka Oliver in a GED class at HopeWorks.
However, when he first made the decision to take GED classes, he wavered on the logistics. His biggest concern was where to take the classes. He was reluctant to enter an impersonal classroom setting.
Years ago, life and its demands had intercepted his plans to graduate from high school. He wanted to make sure life and its demands didn’t get in the way again. He needed flexibility and support.
“A friend of mine from church talked me into checking out HopeWorks’ program,” Burgess said. “She said they were very hands-on there and all about encouraging you and making you believe in yourself.”
It turned out to be great advice.
Burgess enrolled in HopeWorks’ four-week fast-track program with a focus on math, one of several free high school equivalency test training options offered through the local not-for-profit organization.
“Everybody there is wonderful to work with,” Burgess said. “The one thing they tell you over and over – and they get you to memorize it – is ‘You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.’ They teach you how not to be stressed out about the classes. They remind you, ‘You can do this – just read, think and relax.’ If you’re a student there, they’re going to be with you every step of the way.”
Anna Snickenberger, adult education instructor, has been with HopeWorks for almost five years. She is a fan of both the organization and the city of Memphis.
“I love the energy and spirit of this city, that people are so willing to come together to work for positive change and make Memphis a better place to live,” said Snickenberger, a former Teach for America instructor. “And I love that HopeWorks looks at each student holistically to determine what we can give them to better prepare them for life, a family and a career.”
Founded in 1988 as the Life Skills Lab and renamed in 1998, HopeWorks primarily serves low-income adults and ex-offenders with the ultimate goal of developing individual worth and encouraging personal responsibility. According to 2012 statistics, about 70 percent of HopeWorks students have been incarcerated, and about 65 percent don’t have a high school diploma. Through outreach programs such as educational and life skills training, spiritual counseling and community meals, the faith-based organization strives to break cycles of crime, poverty and addiction.
HopeWorks’ GED program in particular has evolved significantly during the past year. In 2012, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development awarded a $188,000 grant to the organization, expanding the program to serve up to 700 students throughout the county.
This year, an additional $300,000 Labor and Workforce Development grant has allowed HopeWorks to expand even more, increasing its goal to serving 2,000 students through July 2015. The new grant also has enabled the organization to hire more staff and offer more classes throughout the week. They’ve even shifted the focus to encompass more than just test scores and given it a new name – the Adult Education Program.
“We want to keep improving our success rate,” Snickenberger said. “We also want to prepare our students for testing changes on the horizon as well as life beyond that test.”
Starting in January, the GED test will be computer-based and is expected to be more rigorous, she said. The cost of the test also will increase from $65 to $120, although HopeWorks pays each of its students’ test fees.
In response to the GED changes, the nonprofit testing group Educational Services created an alternative high school equivalency test called the HiSet, which costs $50 and has paper and computer options.
Tennessee accepts both the HiSet and the GED as high school equivalency credentials, and HopeWorks plans to offer test prep courses for HiSet as well.
Snickenberger notes that HopeWorks considers these certificates to be just one factor needed to get participants on the path to success. She and her colleagues have worked extensively to tailor the organization’s educational programs to fit the needs of each individual and to make the experience last far longer than the time it takes to complete a high school equivalency exam. To that effect, HopeWorks also offers a number of personal and career development courses, including classes in interviewing skills and job searching. There also is a program in the works that will soon allow students to train with industry partners to gain skills in their chosen industries while also preparing for the necessary exams.
“We want to bridge the gap between adult education and employment,” Snickenberger said. “When our graduates leave here, we want them to be career-ready and able to connect with employers.”