Anthony Bockarie, 36, knows the value of an education.

He is a refugee from Sierra Leone, where "education is a right, but it is not a right for the last 11 years or during the last war," he said Tuesday. "War is an enemy of education but a best friend to illiteracy," he said.

It didn't require a war for Linda Commey to know that. Commey, 54, was living in a homeless shelter when she heard about a program that helps working adults get their high school equivalency degree, or GED.

"At first I thought I was too old to go back to school," said Commey, who is still working toward her degree. "But I realized if I wanted to be a massage therapist, I had to have a high school degree."

Arthur Robinson, 38, dropped out of school when he was 16, worked at a variety of odd jobs, unsuccessfully tried Job Corps, and finally swore off alcohol five years ago. He got a job as a housekeeper at a hospital, then was promoted to nursing assistant.

"The one thing that haunted me was I didn't have my GED," he said. To achieve his dream of becoming a nurse, Robinson started at the Academy of Hope two years ago; he will graduate June 10 and attend Montgomery College.

All three spoke at the academy's fourth annual Breakfast for Literacy, an event underwritten by the Freddie Mac Foundation, at the Washington Plaza Hotel.

Their stories are representative of those of the students at the 19-year-old adult education program based at 15th Street and Columbia Road NW.

The school teaches reading, writing, math and job skills training to D.C. adults, but it likes to say that its main subject is hope. Going back to school after years away from the classroom is intimidating, and earning the GED is not as easy as many people expect.

"We want people to understand the amount of time it takes to get a GED when you're an adult and have other responsibilities," said Susan Ely, the organization's executive director. It takes 900 hours for most people, she said, or 16 months.

Every year, more than 400 adult students start the $10-per-month classes, typically between shifts at their multiple jobs, or during stray hours off. The classes are always full, and more than 80 teachers, all volunteers, are constantly busy. Often they show up before classes to teach what's needed, such as multiplication tables, students said.

The need is great. The school says that 37 percent of adult District residents have a difficult time filling out a job application, reading a newspaper or locating an intersection on a map. "I didn't even know how to write an essay" before starting classes, Commey said. "I got second place in an essay contest."

The academy is supported by donations and grants from individuals, companies and foundations. It also receives some funding from local government agencies.

About 250 students have graduated over the past 19 years. In the last year, 27 students graduated, and 105 advanced one or more levels in reading, math or writing, according to the academy.

A survey showed that before the students attended academy classes, 42 percent were unemployed and 16 percent were on public assistance. After graduation, 16 percent were unemployed and 1 percent were on public assistance. Their annual earnings rose significantly; many started with wages below $10,000 a year but 73 percent topped $15,000 after graduation, and 23 percent earned more than $30,000.

The benefits of learning spread to others; many of the graduates reported that they now read to their own children more often, vote in elections and have joined the PTA. Fifteen of the graduates now own their own home.

The rise in self-esteem is part of the benefit.

When Bockarie, who is still studying for his GED, began to read poems in English, "I started to feel sorry for myself because I stumbled across big words," he said. "But then a teacher said to me, it doesn't matter if you need help because when you learn those words, it will be so exciting. And it is."

Registration for summer classes will be held by phone, at 202-328-2029, on May 27. To teach or tutor, call the same number or e-mail josephine@aohdc.org.

GED candidate Linda Commey, 54, first thought she "was too old to go back to school." She enrolled to help fulfill her goal of being a massage therapist. Academy of Hope student Anthony Bockarie, 36, above, began working toward his GED here after he was unable to complete his education in war-torn Sierra Leone. Arthur Robinson, 38, left high school at 16. With his GED diploma, he hopes to study to be a nurse.