They dropped out of high school many years ago, for many reasons.
James Hopper, 64, felt insecure because his classmates dressed better than he could afford to. "I wanted to be like everybody else — oh, gosh. Everybody doing so good, looking so swell and stuff."
Kenya Brown, 46, became pregnant. "I was going to do Job Corps, but they didn't accept teen moms."
Katherine Bryant, 64, needed to help her family when her mother became sick. "I didn't love school, and there were plenty of jobs available."
For most of their working lives, they were able to get hired without a high school diploma or the equivalent. But a few years ago, that changed. The Great Recession hit as the Washington area became increasingly attractive to highly-educated residents — a perfect storm that allowed employers to be pickier and left high school dropouts in the cold.
"Before the recession, a person could still have the clean shirt, the nice appearance, the strong handshake, the willingness to work hard and walk into an employer's office and get some kind of job. After the recession, they realized it was a very different landscape," said Valarie Ashley, executive director of Southeast Ministry, a nonprofit in Congress Heights.
The organization coaches between 350 and 500 adults a year in taking high school equivalency tests or the occupational training qualification exam known as CASAS, the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems. It is widely used throughout the country for assessing adults' basic reading, math, listening, writing and speaking abilities.
At Southeast Ministry, about half of the students are over 45. They come to learn the basics they either forgot or never learned in the first place. Some have high school diplomas but have been unable to score high enough on CASAS to be accepted into specific occupational training programs for such jobs as medical assistants or building maintenance workers.
The average student has fifth-grade reading skills and third-grade math skills, and most lack digital literacy.
For the older ones, even the job application process these days is unfamiliar — often online, harder to clinch with a handshake. That can be especially daunting for those who never had computers in school and never needed them at work.
"It was easier back then," said Bryant, who over the past five decades has had jobs cleaning hotel rooms, making sandwiches, being a line cook and working at a day care. "They didn't ask you for your educational background. If they needed someone and they thought you could do the job, you were hired."
But in 2015, the day care closed, and everywhere she went to apply required a high school diploma.
"So I just made up my mind," she said. "Okay, my kids are grown, I done put them all through school, so I have no choice other than to get my own."
For many older students, it is their first time in a classroom in decades. That means they have more catching up to do, but there are also positive things that come with age.
"They know they're out of chances, so they come in with a more serious, focused sense of getting it this time," Ashley said. "Our younger students still haven't had enough hard knocks — they're a lot more defensive about making errors. One of the nice things is sometimes the older people have a calming influence on some of the younger people."
Thomas Walker, 59, came to improve his score on the CASAS test by two points so he can qualify for computer technician training. Five years ago, he got his high school diploma after taking classes at Southeast Ministry. At the time, his son was about to graduate from high school, and Walker had a secret.
"I was always saying how he's got to finish school. He didn't know that I didn't finish school," Walker said.
"So I took him with me. He graduated one day and I graduated the next day. He didn't know where I was taking him. I said, 'Pop's got to get his diploma.' "
Now, in a room decorated with African masks and paintings, Walker and other students tried to figure out what 1/25th of a dollar amounts to.
"It is a little less than a nickel," Paul Ruffins, the organization's director of workforce academics and a math teacher there, offered. He picked up a quarter from a pile of four on the table. "How much money is a 25th?"
In another classroom, students had to figure out the average rainfall in Seattle over several months. Brown and Bryant huddled over their work sheets, trying to determine how many months needed to be factored in and trying to follow the teacher's directive to count in their heads, not with their fingers. "My daughter — she's a math whiz," Brown said. "She helps whenever I need it."
To Ruffins, a good math education feels like something these students are owed — especially those who attended D.C. schools in the last decades of the 20th century, when race riots and crack wars resulted in widespread black flight to the suburbs.
"Let's face it, there was a time in the D.C. public schools when you could just sit there and get through," he said, referring to social promotion that was once prevalent. "I see part of our job as almost a justice thing for people who went through the schools before they began to improve."
They are up against some daunting demographics, Ashley said, noting that the Washington area has one of the highest-educated workforces in the country. "Young people who want to stay in D.C. will take the jobs that our clients would have applied for. Waitress jobs, cleaning, bussing tables . . . It pushes our people out."
For Ashley, there is a personal connection to the work she does.
"My mom got her GED when I was 10 and she was 37," she said. "She needed to find work and couldn't because she didn't have her high school diploma. There was a period of time when her math homework and my math homework were the same, and so I helped her with fractions. So when I, by chance of the universe, got into this, it sort of resonated."
Southeast Ministry faced challenges this year when the city cut its annual grant — which accounted for 20 percent of its budget — by about 50 percent under a new model for funding occupational training and education, Ashley said. The program still gets private funding from foundations, individuals, and the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, its founder.
"The mayor is pushing the pathway to middle class, but I want the people that we serve to get onto that pathway," she said. "The population we are serving and the work that we do is not an easy sell. People want to see results within a year."
For some, it may take longer than that. Hopper, a white-bearded man with bifocals and a cane, has studied for the GED in the past, but he said the material seems even harder now. Still, he is determined to keep trying.
"I had a teacher that I'll never forget. She said, 'I've got mine, you've got yours to get.' And I sat there, thinking, 'That makes a whole lot of sense.' " A tear welled up and rolled down his cheek. "I keep saying, 'I'm not going to quit until I get my — I call it a sheepskin — my diploma."