Illness. Pregnancy. Poverty. Crime. Whatever the reason they didn’t complete high school, young people and adults who earn a General Educational Development diploma through the Durango Adult Education Center see doors open for themselves and their families.
“In all my 30 years of teaching, the high school dropout rate has stayed steady at 20 to 25 percent,” Stephanie Moran, GED program director and teacher at the center, said. “That number has not budged despite the money, time and programs thrown at it. We’re the only alternative after people drop out.”
Last week, 36 new GED graduates moved their tassels to the other side of their mortarboards as a crowd of more than 100 celebrated their accomplishment.
“We invite you to applaud and cheer for the graduates,” said Paulette Church, executive director of the center. “These are highly motivated and courageous people who walked in and asked to get their GEDs after leaving high school. It’s not easy, because 40 percent of high school graduates can’t pass the test.”
Graduates ranged in age from 17 to 37 at Friday’s observance, one of two ceremonies the center holds each year. Each person has his or her own journey to the diploma.
The center has served students from 31 countries and five continents.
“The power of your story means that you have to share what you have done,” said Dene Kay Thomas, president of Fort Lewis College and the commencement speaker. “You’ve been through struggles, successes and failures to reach this point. Now you have many more choices than you had before.”
The GED is a battery of five exams in subjects such as reading, writing and mathematics. Students must achieve an average score of 450 out of a potential 800 on each test to earn the diploma. The center’s GED graduates average 542 in writing and 538 in math, Moran said. About 22 percent qualify for the 3000 Club Academic Award with scores in the top 16 percent.
“I already graduated in Brazil,” Cortez resident Andre de Faria Filho, 18, said. “I came and did it in English because I wanted more paper.”
De Faria Filho’s mother married a Cortez man a year ago, and both mother and son came to the education center to take classes in the English for Speakers of Other Languages Program. He was taking the SATs the day after graduation with plans to study exercise science in college.
“I came knowing a little bit of grammar, but the speaking and understanding I learned here,” he said.
For others, it took only one bad decision to end their high school education.
“How many young people make a mistake?” Moran asked. “We don’t want them to be done at 19.”
Sara Dahle, 17, became pregnant at 15 during her sophomore year of high school and gave birth at 16. She’s still working on getting her GED diploma but has no doubt she will complete it.
“For me, it’s all about my son, Benny,” she said. “I need to be able to talk to his teachers in an appropriate way. I don’t want to be dumb. It’s better to be here than home and doing nothing.”
Sara is hoping to go into law enforcement.
While the center offers classes to prepare people to take the GED tests, not everyone needs them.
“I have to compliment the teachers at Durango High School,” Aaron Mallett, 29, said. “I was more prepared than I thought, and I was able just to take the tests and pass.”
Mallett said he didn’t finish high school because he got into some trouble and had to get a job. Now married with two sons, he works as a supervisor at Roseberry Plumbing & Heating Inc.
“In this economy, you’ve got to always be looking to better yourself,” he said.
A number of former GED graduates attended the ceremony.
Krystal Price, 18, is one of the center’s many success stories. She dropped out of high school at 14 to help take care of her mother and came to the center to get her GED diploma. The center had to get an age waiver to allow her to take the GED when she was 16.
“I really loved going to Sue’s (Petranek) classes,” she said. “I could talk to her about anything.”
Price is in her final semester of an associate’s degree at Southwest Colorado Community College, where she will be a student ambassador recruiting high school and GED graduates to the school. Her ultimate goal is to earn a doctorate in psychology.
Every graduating class includes six to eight students who earned their GED while incarcerated at the La Plata County jail in the center’s Jail Program. Between 30 and 40 students ranging in age from 18 to their 60s are on the roster any Tuesday or Thursday when teachers Petranek and Charlie Love offer classes at the facility.
“We get some who are nearly unable to read, and others, we just dust them off and give them their tests,” Petranek said. “It’s hard for anyone to get a job, then throw in a felony. Many have gotten bitten by a bug to learn, which is so exciting.”
Whatever their route to the GED diploma, one thing is for sure.
“This is a true alternative, a true gateway to higher education,” Church said. “Now they can go into the field or career or path they want.”