An Education and a Shot at a Living Wage
By Theola Labbé
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page C05
Inside a two-story Southeast home converted into a learning center, LaTinique Cooper hunched over a math worksheet. She used a sharp pencil to punch the buttons of her calculator to solve a word problem about wins and losses in a game. It was a test of her ability to add positive and negative numbers.
She would have learned to solve this kind of math problem in high school, but Cooper, 23, a single mother, dropped out in ninth grade. Now, she is a student in Living Wages, an adult education program.
Her teenage years were marked more by rebellion than education; then at 20, she had a son. In need of a job, she looked for months, but without a high school diploma, any work experience or even a résumé, employers never called her back.
"I saw that I was stuck, that I wasn't able to get hired," Cooper said.
Researchers from the Annie E. Casey Foundation use a different word: disconnected. The label, they say, describes millions of young adults in situations similar to Cooper's. In its recently released annual report, the Baltimore-based nonprofit group found that 3.8 million young adults ages 18 to 24, about 15 percent of the nation's young adults, have no diploma beyond high school, are unemployed and have no plans for college or other prospects. In the District, according to the report, 9,000 young adults in that age group face such obstacles.
Casey President Douglas W. Nelson said the situation is alarming. "The real secret, what these kids don't have are adults who are interested in their safety and are involved in their lives," Nelson said.
Since 1999, Living Wages has offered a basic education program for adults who test at a fourth-grade level and an adult education program for high school dropouts older than 16. The nonprofit group has an annual budget of $200,000 and receives federal money and private donations.
The students, mostly from the neighborhood and mostly African American, come to two locations in Southeast Washington. They include the unemployed, the homeless and ex-offenders, according to the program's statistics. Students can enroll anytime, and classes are held daily. Since 2002, 10 of the program's GED students have passed the exam.
Living Wages Executive Director Bob Crittenden, a former Peace Corps volunteer who once worked for Catholic Charities, said the program is structured but informal. His office overlooks a small garden where staff members are planting okra and tomatoes, and they encourage the students to participate. Twice a year, the organization holds a graduation; a photo from last year was tacked to his office door. "We provide resources and opportunities, and people here figure out the way to take advantage of them," he said.
Last week, students worked quietly, one-on-one with tutors. Cooper, the 23-year-old student with a personality as sunny as her large dangling yellow earrings, said that she heard about the Casey research on young adults. For her, it was like looking in a mirror. "I saw myself," she said.
The GED test will be offered again to students in less than two weeks. Cooper said she is proud of herself already for having attended classes for eight months straight. She has already passed several tests in science and English.
Cooper is not sure what she wants to do next, but she feels "like just a normal person in society," she said. Stuck, no more.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company