It’s hard to find personal stories more heartening than those of unemployed and low-earning adults struggling in classes for hours each day, month after month, to get a substitute for the high school diploma they never got as teenagers.
They wrestle with algebra, photosynthesis and the Bill of Rights for the sake of an entry-level job or a 75-cent raise in their $10 hourly wage.
Many also do it so they can help their children with homework and set a positive example for the next generation.
District resident Tiffany Harris, 31, said of her 9-year-old daughter: “She’s seeing me in school, so that should give her a better reason to stay in school and learn herself.”
Harris, who also has a 3-year-old son, is studying 16 hours a week at the nonprofit Academy of Hope in Northeast Washington. She would like to work in a restaurant, but any job would do to pay her bills.
“I can fill out an application okay, but when they see you don’t have experience or a high school diploma, they throw it to the side,” she said.
For Harris and other strivers working to get a General Educational Development credential, or GED, the challenge has become significantly harder.
Beginning this year, the seven-hour GED exam was revamped to make the document more comparable to a high school diploma.
That made sense, given that a higher standard was necessary to satisfy employers seeking better-educated workers in a technology-driven economy.
But the change has added to the burden on people trying to improve their lives and already at risk of being left behind.
The math section can now include questions on quadratic equations and factoring polynomials. The social studies and science sections put greater stress on analytical thinking and less on mere reading comprehension. Students have to take the test on a computer rather than using pen and paper.
“They both moved the goal posts back and moved the crossbar higher,” said Deborah Bloch, a volunteer math teacher at Academy of Hope.
The test also costs more, partly because a for-profit company is helping to administer it.
The changes have created headaches for the underfunded, nonprofit schools and other groups that prepare students for the GED. It’s going to take longer to teach the average adult student to pass the new test. Many already need two years.
Moreover, at Academy of Hope, about two in five students have to take basic literacy courses before they even arrive. The school requires a fifth-grade reading ability to enter.
“The GED needed an overhaul, but it was such a massive one, with very little resources for the nonprofit organizations to cope,” Academy of Hope Executive Director Lecester Johnson said.
Partly in response, the academy is preparing to transform itself into a public charter school to tap city education funds. That will enable it to prepare 100 students a year to get their GED, compared with 55 last year.
It’s a fine goal. But even if all of the District’s other adult education operators also doubled their capacity, it would barely dent the city’s overwhelming need.
At present, about 500 District residents a year get their GED. The number of District residents age 18 and older who lack a high school diploma or equivalent is more than 60,000.
That population makes up the core of the District’s long-term jobless and underemployed.
Daquanna Harrison, the academy’s director of secondary and postsecondary education, said she recently printed eight sheets of job openings in Ward 8.
“Our students could go get this pipe-fitting job or that commercial driver’s license, but they need this piece of paper,” Harrison said.
One such student is Samuel Lamorell, 35. He had to stop working as an auto mechanic in 2010 when an engine slipped and injured his left hand. Now he’s pursuing a GED in hope of attending community college to become an X-ray technician.
“I’m a little frustrated, because [the test] is tougher now. You have to be a faster reader, and I’m a slow reader,” he said.
Another is Kenneth Tolson, 49, a former office cleaner who is unemployed. He said he wasted high school “clowning and joking around.” He doesn’t want his children, who are 1 and 2, to make the same mistake.
“I want to get it for myself and also for my children . . . to show them how to do things the right way,” Tolson said.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.