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Rock Valley College and Goodwill Industries battle Rockford’s education gap one test at a time

by | Jun 23, 2016 | Media |

ROCKFORD — A pilot program launched in October is showing signs of success as educators look to arm thousands of adults in Boone and Winnebago counties with a high school equivalency certificate and skills that will land them a sustainable job.

Mary Kinney retired after a 33-year career as a public school teacher and is now on the front lines of this battle. There are 45,000 adults in the two-county area who have no high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate.

The long odds don’t deter Kinney. She teaches about a dozen adults for a few hours a day, four days a week, in the pilot program run by Rock Valley College and Goodwill Industries of Northern Illinois. The program is a precursor of sorts to a larger, more sophisticated plan envisioned by RVC and Goodwill to provide basic and vocational education to the multitude of undereducated adults in the region.

While the larger vision develops, Rock Valley has married its adult education instruction with the kind of intense, personalized case management that Goodwill has found successful in its GoodGrads program, which is a prelude to a GED class. Student retention in most adult education of that sort hovers around 30 percent. The RVC-Goodwill pilot program boasts retention rates of 79 percent and higher. Administrators say effective case managers are the reason for that success; they help students overcome life and work obstacles that often derail their educational aspirations.

Last week, Kinney was quizzing three adult women on the finer points of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the federal government. In Illinois, students must pass a U.S. Constitution test before they can earn a GED. Kinney finds that, for many students, the Constitution test is the easiest part of the GED battle.

“Math is the hardest part of the GED test,” Kinney said. “Reading comprehension and writing skills — we focus on that a lot, too. The Constitution test tends to be the easiest part. So you try to build on that, get some easy wins. When you see the look on their faces when they get the answers right, or pass when they pass a test — I wish we could bottle up their enthusiasm.”

If earning a GED is the goal, Kinney said, the key to success is not giving up. In that respect, results of the RVC-Goodwill pilot program are encouraging, even though the program is only 6 months old.

Rock Valley delivers reading and math instruction — below the ninth-grade level — to students and Goodwill provides case management services. Every student’s needs are different, and the case manager’s role is equal parts therapist, student advocate and confidence booster.

Most students in pilot program are in their 20s, 30s or are even older, said Cira Bennett, a case manager who oversees Goodwill’s GoodGrads program. Students routinely need help to navigate obstacles such as child care, transportation, rent payments and any number of other hurdles that might prevent them from attending class.

“The biggest takeaway that we see with this program so far is the case management,” Bennett said. “We’re learning how to use the case managers more frequently, more strategically.”

For the first session of the pilot program, which ran from October through December, student retention was 79 percent in classes offered at Rock Valley’s downtown Learning Opportunity Center. Retention was 87 percent at the second site, Blackhawk Courts Apartments on 15th Avenue. Students collectively passed 17 individual tests needed to earn a GED. One individual earned a GED.

“To have those kind of retention numbers and that kind of progress with this population of students is extraordinary,” said Pat Young, Rock Valley’s Adult Education coordinator. “So many students have trouble with child care or transportation. Just getting to class can be a struggle. That’s why the case management is so important.”

If a student doesn’t show up to class, a case manager may call and offer to pick him or her up or arrange for the student to get bus tokens or some other way to get to class. If the obstacle is child care, the case manager finds a solution. More often than not, Bennett said, the most important thing a case manager does is listen.

“When you’re raising kids, trying to hold down a job and support a family and you’re going to class every day to earn a GED, it’s a huge, huge challenge,” Bennett said. “You need an advocate. You need someone to encourage you, to listen to what’s going on in your life and to try to get that person whatever help they need to stay on track to get that GED.”

Mostly, though, the case manager just listens.

“This is real case management,” Young said. “It’s counseling for the student if that’s what they need. It’s philosophy changing. It’s all encompassing. It’s not just calling them and saying why aren’t you in class today, but talking and listening to the student and addressing whatever underlying issues they may face.”

Despite the early success of the RVC-Goodwill pilot program, it alone won’t be enough to attack the so-called GED crisis facing the Rockford region, said Goodwill President Sam Schmitz.

Schmitz and Rock Valley President Mike Mastroianni have met with each member of the Illinois House and Senate delegation that represents the Rockford area. They’re all committed, Schmitz said, to advancing legislation that would allow Rock Valley and Goodwill to an build a more effective weapon to combat the region’s lack of education and vocational training.

The goal, Schmitz said, is to establish an Excel Center in Rockford. Goodwill has a long history of providing adult education, career skills and a path to a decent-paying job for thousands of unemployed and underemployed adults across the country. More than a thousand adults have graduated from its Excel Center charter high schools in greater Indianapolis and found sustainable employment.

Illinois does not award high school diplomas to those who are 21 or older. State legislators would have to change the age rule to enable Rockford to establish an Excel Center, just as Indianapolis; Austin, Texas; and Memphis, Tennessee, have done in recent years.

Schmitz said Goodwill administrators have helped draft legislation that, if adopted, would allow Rockford to open its own version of The Excel Center, whether it is a true charter high school or some type of hybrid institution that provides adult education and vocational training credentials that are universally recognized by higher education providers and employers.

“I think you’ll see some legislation be introduced in late May or June,” Schmitz said.

Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, said that he and other local lawmakers, including state Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, Rep. Litesa Wallace, D-Rockford, and Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, have each drafted slightly different bills that would allow a school like The Excel Center to open and operate in Rockford. Cabello said the various bills have been assigned to committees in the Illinois House and Senate, and it’s up to leaders in both chambers to decide if and when the bills are called for lawmakers’ consideration.

“Not everyone goes to high school and gets a diploma,” Cabello said. “People learn in different ways, so we need different ways for people to get an education. This is really about helping people who didn’t get that high school diploma the first time and now they want to go back and get that education and make a new start.”