One Student at a Time. . .
Five homeless adults graduated from my GED class in 2003. Two others from that class are currently scheduled for testing, and I have high hopes. Eight students continue to study because they started class in late fall and need more time. Ten students dropped out, ten out of 25, or forty percent. It was a very good year.
I had worked in federal and/or state funded adult education programs for ten years before I began working with homeless individuals three years ago. I thought I had done a really good job in my prior positions. In addition to teaching the academics, I spent time getting to know my students - their motivation for returning to school, as well as the personal issues that might prevent success. None of my experience, however, prepared me for working with the homeless population.
Three years ago, Maslow's hierarchy of needs stared me in the eye for the first time. Food, shelter, clothing. When faced with the big three, I learned that education barely warranted a line on the priority list. Fortunately, most of my students live in transitional housing programs, safe havens where basic needs are temporarily met and practical plans for the future are made. These plans include high school diplomas and jobs. Other mandated activities also move clients toward the mainstream. Some focus on health issues, both physical and mental, such as attendance at AA meetings.
Some focus on everyday living issues, such as budgeting and parenting skills. My role, however, is in the GED classroom.
Three years ago, when fractured lives filled the tables in my classroom, it didn't take me long to understand that I was in new territory.
While many of my former students were poor - very poor - most lived within a family structure, held part-time jobs and had decided to get their high school diplomas to improve earnings and make themselves and their families proud. Their lives were basically intact.
All my current students are part of broken down families. They are both responsible for and are victims of their circumstances. You've all seen the stories: drug abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, unemployment one too many times. A low-wage paycheck is often the thin dividing line between living under a shingled roof or under the open sky. By the time she was thirteen, my curly-haired blond, blue-eyed student had been sexually abused for years. She ran away then and spent the next 6½ years on the streets. "It was me and God against the world," she told me. One night, she fell on her knees in the bathroom of a motel and cried until no tears were left. The next day, she walked into a drug rehabilitation program. She's now a high school graduate.
While it is true that the challenges are greater, and the dropout rate is higher with this group, I can't make many allowances in the classroom. I must maintain the same academic standards I've always had. I do give consideration for housing searches, medical appointments and anything else relating to Maslow's hierarchy. I also expect many of my current students to need more time to prepare for their GED exam than my former students did. Like them, these students must also be familiar with the Periodic Table of the Elements; they still must apply the Pythagorean theorem; they still must write a coherent essay, not to mention interpreting literature and social studies readings. The work is the same, but the battle is tougher. I've recently learned that five percent fewer examinees nationwide are passing the new 2002 GED exam than had passed the prior exam developed in the late eighties. So, perhaps my preparation has to be tougher.
"I should have gotten my diploma 25 years ago!" Strands of gray hair mingle with the dark. Eyes fill with hope ... and fear. His English usage is below par and he worries about the essay requirement. "But if not now, when?" he asks himself. An African-American man in his late forties, he ran from his abusive family when he was about 15. He worked temporary jobs all his life until he wound up living in a park and playing chess. Subsequently, he became a rated player, but still lived in a park. When he decided he'd had enough, he came to my agency for a meal - and stayed long enough to earn his GED diploma and license as an Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) technician.
Every city in the world has a homeless population. Unfortunately, the picture we have of the homeless is that of dirty, unshaven, smelly men and women scrounging through garbage cans and living under bridges. Perhaps this small sub-group is easier to film when municipalities worry about their public image, and politicians are implored to "do something!" about cleaning the homeless from their streets.
While many homeless people suffer from some type of mental or physical illness, most homeless people do not live on the streets as the media image suggests. Most homeless people are trying NOT to be homeless. They are trying to become self-sustaining by doing whatever they have to do. Throughout this nation, a steady stream of individuals finds its way to adult education classes and GED diplomas. And jobs.
What are some of my graduates doing now? One is a freshman at the U of H, several are community college students, two are full-time cooks, one is a pharmacy technician trainee, several are medical assistants, one is an LVN, and one is a licensed HVAC technician. Many are now tax-payers; others will be paying taxes soon.
Not all of my students stay in touch, however, and I wonder about them. I'm not naive enough to believe that each will become a success story. A few might even become homeless again. But - drum roll here - I have had several of my own dropouts return and succeed! The spark had been lit during their first attempt and remained burning in the back of their minds until the timing was right. Perhaps their housing situation had stabilized, or their child was finally in daycare, or they had chosen to end problem relationships.
Or perhaps now, they were truly in recovery. Something had changed, usually through good case management and counseling, and my former students reached for a second chance. My formula for success: Motivation + Timing = Diploma.
My tradition teaches that we all have a responsibility to "repair the world." I've discovered that we can succeed one student at a time.
About the Author
Linda Barrett's classroom experience includes ESL, ABE/GED and Employment Preparation for a widely diverse student population both in MA and TX. She says that her current position - working with homeless individuals - has been the most challenging. Linda has a Master's degree in Education from Hunter College, City University of NY. She also leads a double life as a novelist and invites you to check out her website at: http://www.linda-barrett.com.