Going Back to School: Clark Offers GED Alternative

The Clark bell tower adn students walking along a path. High School 21+ launched at seven colleges in 2012 and is now offered at almost all 30 Washington technical and community colleges, including Clark. Photo: Kristen Fowler

Adults can now earn a high school diploma by enrolling in classes for just $25 per quarter and demonstrating competency in key areas.

High School 21+ launched  at seven colleges in 2012 and is now offered at almost all 30 Washington technical and community colleges, including Clark.

The program offers an alternative to a GED for students at least 21 years old without a high school diploma. Advisors evaluate students and create an educational plan based on gaps in their education.

Three students earned their high school diplomas over the summer and are now enrolled in college-level classes, according to Sara Rinearson, High School Completion Specialist.

Dezirae Mendoza is one student in the program. She had been working towards a GED at Clark for a quarter when High School 21+ was introduced.

“The classes were moving too fast and I was having a hard time grasping it all,” Mendoza said. “When High School 21+ came into effect, I realized it was a whole different ballpark. The teachers went more in depth on the subjects they were teaching and made sure that the information was sticking with us all so no student was left behind.”

Rinearson said experiences from high school, work, military, trade schools and industry certifications all count towards diploma requirements. Eight students are on track to finish in Fall quarter and she has already met with more than 90 students to develop individual academic plans for upcoming quarters.

Monica Wilson, Transitional Studies Program Manager, said the program provides more opportunities to students than the regular GED pathway because it accounts for previous experience and is not a pass-fail test.

“For many students, they stepped out of high school with not much left to complete, and so they’ve already shown competency in many areas,” Wilson said. “High School 21+ gives them the opportunity to fill in what they need without having to prove they should be able to move forward in other areas.”

Thirty-five percent of students enrolled across the state have earned a high school diploma since the program became official in 2013-14, said Troy Goracke, Program Administrator of Basic Education for Adults at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

After completing High School 21+, students may move into the I-BEST program or directly into college-level coursework.

Jim Wilkins-Luton, Interim Dean of Basic Education, English, Communications and Humanities, said students have many options within Transitional Studies. Clark has two I-BEST sections each quarter, which offer a college-level course coupled with an English course and a support class. The class offers students the opportunity to earn up to 16 college credits.

Although not an early adopter of High School 21+, Clark implemented the I-BEST program before many other schools, according to Wilkins-Luton. “We have one of the best academic I-BEST programs in the state,” he said.

“The I-BEST model is such a neat opportunity for students to continue to build confidence and be mentored through the transition while earning college-level credit in a more supportive environment where they’re able to further develop the academic skills they’re going to need to be successful in their college-level program of study,” Wilson said.

Wilson and Rinearson agree the GED test has  become more difficult and computerized which has created barriers for students lacking digital literacy skills.

“I think the biggest change is it moved more to a knowledge-based test rather than reading comprehension,” Rinearson said. “Students need to have more knowledge in the subject areas rather than just having really good reading skills and being able to infer the answers.”

Clark’s 1,200 Transitional Studies students are not easily generalized, though.

“Statistically, I would say adults without a high school diploma are more likely to be living in poverty,” Wilson said. “However, we have people in our program who have careers and good-paying jobs but need this credential to get a promotion at work or a new job. We have a great amount of diversity in our program. I think what all of our students have in common is that they’re ready to take the next step in their life and are really thinking about their futures and how to make a better life for their family.”

Transitional Studies students also commonly lack confidence, according to Rinearson.

“A lot of them have had negative educational experiences in the past,” Rinearson said. “We’re able to provide support to those students who have been struggling with self-confidence so they can begin to believe in themselves again and their abilities. That they really are good enough to go even further beyond just a high school diploma.”

The success rate across Transitional Studies programs at Clark is about 12 percent, according to Wilson. She said the goal for all students is to encourage them to consider going further and providing them the support they need.

“The Transitional Studies prep class focuses on college as a whole and successful study skills and financial aid,” Wilson said. “Even if they’re not interested in taking college-level coursework, we’ve been focusing on planting that seed and then watering it.”

The college has been restructuring Transitional Studies due to legislation from the state and federal government, including the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The act asks colleges to cooperate with community partners to help transition students from education to the workforce.

“WIOA has us integrate what we’re doing with everyone,” Wilkins-Luton said. “So a student comes into the college wherever they’re at, whatever their need is, and they get the resources they need from us and our community partners. As they transition out of [basic] education, they’re either moving into academic pathways or they’re moving into professional technical programs and then getting assistance along the way so they have a job when they’re finished.”

For Mendoza, she plans to continue her education at Clark and become a registered nurse. “With the help of such an amazing staff and the High School 21+ program, I now have that second chance to become someone,” she said. “To better myself and to be better for my child.”

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