Although they range in age from 16 to 74, the students enrolled in the GED program at East Lincoln Christian Ministry in Denver are all working to earn their high school diplomas.
Their stories are as diverse as the students themselves. For most, they have learned in the current job market, you can't obtain so much as an entry level job at McDonalds or Walmart without a high school diploma. For others who have lost their jobs due to the recession, even job retraining programs requires the diploma.
The GED program, which stands for General Education Development testing, is run by Reggie Estes, who has taught real estate to agents and brokers at community colleges in Greensboro and the Catawba Valley. As a crisis ministry volunteer at East Lincoln Christian Ministry, she had been assisting people in finding jobs when she realized helping them get a high school diploma was essential.
"Earning the GED is great," says Estes, "but all learning helps our students with self-esteem, confidence, and self-assurance, all of which benefits their families as well."
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Establishing a GED program in Denver under the sponsorship of Gaston College meant students no longer had to go to Lincolnton or to Gaston College in Dallas to attend classes. Still, the initial placement test and final GED test must be taken in Lincolnton.
With an enrollment of more than 20 students and average daily attendance of 10, Estes says, "It is like 'Little House on the Prairie', a one-room schoolhouse." Students range from first to 12th grade levels in preliminary placement tests.
The challenges Estes faces are daunting. However, she explains, "I'm a mom. A mom can do anything! I had two sons who went to college, so running a GED program was a natural progression for me."
The most troublesome part of the job has been discipline with the younger students. "That's why they're here," Estes said.
Supplies and equipment, including computers, are furnished by donations made to ELCM, and there is no charge to students in the program, which is funded by the state.
Enrollment is open, so people can join the class at any time. Because the work is self-paced, some students have finished the program in as little as six weeks, while others may take a year or longer. To earn the GED certificate, they must pass tests in five subjects, including reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Since the program began just more than a year ago, five students have graduated, including one with honors.
Typical of the adults in class, Bobby Collins, 58, dropped out of South Point High School in Belmont at 16 to go to work to help support her family. Born in Gastonia, she was the second youngest of nine children. Her mother had completed the third grade, and her father, who worked in the local mill, had a fifth-grade education.
"I was the one who would buy the groceries sometimes, or I helped momma pay the bills," she recalls. "Everything was bought on credit and a lot of stuff was given to us by the local food bank."
In 1971, the week after she turned 18, she married David. They have been married 40 years and have three children. After working for the same insurance agency for 20 years, she was laid off last October. She had enrolled in a computer class at Gaston College to help her find another job when she learned about the GED program.
"I wish now I had gotten my high school diploma when I was 16," Collins says, "but I didn't feel like I would have been able to finish the 10th grade. I lost all interest in school because I knew that I could get a job."
Hoping to finish the GED within six months, she adds that "I'm committed to finishing the program one way or another, even if I find a job before then. I want to prove to myself that I can do this."
A resident of Denver, George Lovell, 54, had worked at R-Anell Homes for 15 years when he was laid off two years ago. He quit attending Bandys High School in the 12th grade to take a job at Carolina Mills.
"I never was good in school," he explains. "It was difficult for me to pay attention. I never was good at reading or writing."
While looking for another job, he quickly realized that lacking a high-school diploma put him at a disadvantage. "I tried to train as a heavy-equipment operator, but I had to have my GED to qualify, so here I am."
"Going back to school after all these years has been very tough," he says. "Getting down to a routine, sitting in a classroom and studying has been challenging, but it's getting a little easier, bit by bit."
Jessica Thomas, 25, was born in Lumberton. A student at Cherryville High School, she quit midway through her junior year.
"My living arrangements were not stable. My mom and I were not getting along," she explains.
"I didn't have the helping hand, the push that I thought I needed to succeed in school. My thinking was, if nobody really cares, why should I try?"
Because her mom and step-dad are both hearing impaired, she is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).
"I'm 25 years old and I want to make something of myself. I want to be an ASL interpreter, and I have to have a high school diploma to be able to go to college and get a job in the field."
Sarah Beard, 74, is the oldest student enrolled in the program. A Denver resident, she decided to return to school to earn her GED after her husband of many years passed away last August.
For Bobby, George, Jessica and Sarah, the best thing to do right now seems to be to earn the GED. Therein lies the key to a job, a better life, a more successful future.
"We have open enrollment. Whatever your reason for leaving school without a diploma, the time is right now, and the opportunity is here waiting for you," Estest said.