05 August 2013
Adult education in Arizona gets $4.5 million
For 1st time in 3 years, state budgets funds for highly ranked GED program
The state of Arizona is spending money on adult education this year for the first time in three years — a funding gap that squeezed the local groups that help people get their high-school equivalency diplomas.
The state budgeted $4.5 million for the state's adult-education program — one of the most effective in the nation — for the current fiscal year, after not funding it since 2010.
That gap was critical, because the largest share of money for adult education comes from the federal government, which requires states to match one-third of the funds. That means that in the past three years, the state Department of Education, local non-profits and community colleges had to scramble to scrape up the dollars needed to ensure the U.S. Department of Education forked over its $12 million share.
Karen Liersch, deputy associate superintendent for adult-education services for Arizona, said that in the non-funded years, she cobbled together federal stimulus money and some cash provided by the state’s 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax. Both sources are now gone, so the 2013-14 state funding "is a miracle," she said.
But her relief is tempered by the fact that the federal government is cutting its share of adult-ed money by about 6 percent this year, which will eat into that $4.5 million.
Still, she's grateful for any increase in revenue for the program, which serves about 38,000 Arizonans a year.
About 20 percent of all high-school diplomas in Arizona are earned through GED testing, she said — up to 15,500 a year.
To qualify for that federal money, states' adult-education programs must show success in several areas, and Arizona's has been among the best in the country. Adult students are tested before and after they take courses, and an "educational gain" is an increase in 2.5 grade levels. In 2010-11, 61 percent of the state's adult-ed students showed an educational gain — the fourth-highest rate in the nation. Nationwide, 42 percent of students showed an educational gain, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In 2010-11, about 76 percent of Arizona adult-ed students earned a GED, compared with 60 percent nationwide. The state's students also had higher rates of job acquisition, job retention and transfer to post secondary education.
The state contracts with 25 providers across the state, including community colleges, school districts, non-profit groups and county agencies.
One of those providers, Arizona Call-A-Teen Youth Resources, felt the pinch when the state's funding cut coincided with the downturn in the economy, which resulted in fewer grants and donations.
"Our organization essentially deals with individuals in poverty or the working poor," said Pam Smith, executive director. "So, during that time frame, those eligible for our services increased exponentially."
The Phoenix non-profit group chipped in about $35,000 over two years toward matching the federal money, and that meant employee furlough days, delays in building repairs and staff training, and dipping into the general fund, Smith said.
Nationwide, adult education is facing big changes, some of which are putting pressure on students and providers.
One change is that the adult-education curriculum will be aligned with the new Common Core Standards, just like the state's K-12 teaching materials.
The standards are a set of math and language concepts and skills that students must master at each grade level. The standards were developed by educators across the country, including some from Arizona, and were adopted by the state in 2010.
Liersch said that some of the funds will be used to train teachers in the standards, which require different ways of teaching.
Also, more of the adult-education classes will be done in a hybrid model —with students doing lessons online, guided by a teacher — in order to push them through faster. About 6,000 people are on waiting lists for classes now, Liersch said.
The biggest change is that starting Jan. 1, the GED tests will be revised and will be taken entirely online.
Currently, students earn an equivalency diploma by passing five tests in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. They can take each test with pencil and paper as they are ready.
But with the Jan. 1 change, no tests can be carried over. That means that students who have already passed one or more tests will be back to square one unless they can complete all five by that time.
"We're now fast-tracking to get people into remedial education quickly, and to finish the tests before Dec. 31," Liersch said.
The new tests will focus on higher-order thinking skills, with more problem-solving, technical documents and analysis, and less literature, she said.
In addition, the total cost of the tests will increase from about $85 to about $120 next year.
Rio Salado College, which is the state's largest provider of adult education, serving about 7,500 people a year, has made changes of its own.
For the last three semesters, people who seek an equivalency diploma have been required to attend a four-session "student success seminar," which provides tough-love encouragement along with guidance on note-taking, test preparation, computer literacy and goal-setting.
Blair Liddicoat, associate dean at Rio Salado and head of the College Bridge Pathways/Adult Basic Education program, said initial results show the seminars are paying off, with 67 percent of students this past year showing educational gains compared with 41 percent two years ago, before the seminar was required.
Natashya Perkins, 23, of Phoenix, made it halfway through her senior year of high school before dropping out. She said the extra help of the success seminar, plus the smaller class she has at Rio Salado Northern, would have made it easier to stay in school.
Also, as of last month, Rio Salado has started charging a registration fee, ranging from $20 to $50 depending on income, every quarter.
Chester Brown, site manager at Rio Salado Northern in Phoenix, said that while some people struggle to come up with the money, paying a fee gives them a feeling of ownership in the process.
After the success seminar, students are tested to see what level classes they need. Those who need help learning to speak English take English-language acquisition classes. Those who score below about a ninth-grade level on the test will take "adult basic education," and those who score higher take "adult secondary education," which prepares them for the GED test.
It can take a student anywhere from a month to a year to pass all five tests, providers say.
After the GED
Another change in adult-education classes is an increased focus on transitioning to postsecondary education or to work. During the prep classes, students explore career options and learn how they can go on to community college for a two-year degree or a certificate program.
"I think it's important for employers to understand that under this new approach with these programs, potential employees are coming to them not only academically prepared but with job-ready skills," Liddicoat said.
CollegeAmerica,a non-profit college with two campuses in Arizona, began offering free GED classes through its Good Neighbor Initiative program a year ago. The college, which doesn’t receive any government funding for adult education, has helped about 100 people at its Phoenix campus attain that goal.
CollegeAmerica leaders hoped to boost its enrollment once the students got their diploma, but so far only a handful have signed up.
"It's a very small number, about 1 to 3 percent, and it's something we don't understand," said Rosemary Kondusky, the GED coordinator for CollegeAmerica's Phoenix campus. "We were hoping it would be more."
Challenges for dropouts
While Arizona has had success in helping adults acquire high-school equivalency degrees, it's still a tough road for dropouts, even when they run up against the fact that they cannot advance without a diploma.
Liersch said that there are roughly 1.1 million people in Arizona who fall into the target population — 825,000 adults without a diploma and 320,000 English-language learners.
And many of those who decide to go for it need a lot of help.
"In all reality, we don't see many who come in at the GED level of readiness," said Liddicoat. "Most are below a ninth-grade level. We have to work them up step-by-step."
Glendale resident Jamie Hardcastle, 31, attained her equivalency diploma this spring after six months of classwork. She dropped out of school at age 17 when she moved to Arizona from California. Now she has an 11-year-old son and dreams of being a nurse.
She heard an ad on the radio for CollegeAmerica's free GED classes.
"I was hesitant to try, but then I heard the ad a few more times," said Hardcastle, who had to take the math course twice and received extra tutoring.
"I was frustrated, but I told myself I would work harder. I went to the library every single day and did all the homework," she said.
She is now taking nursing classes at CollegeAmerica.
"I would tell others who want to do this to not be afraid."