In an eighth-grade classroom on the third floor of Fair Haven Middle School, Sandra Caro teaches her adult students high school-level math and science.
“We can use the formula — it’s very simple,” Caro, speaking Spanish, told her students one Tuesday in late October as the students, a mixture of middle-aged men and women, listened intently and took notes.
Caro teaches a Spanish-language GED (General Education Development) class offered by the New Haven Adult and Continuing Education Program, an extension of the New Haven Public Schools, and is sponsored by Junta for Progressive Action, one of Fair Haven’s largest Latino community organizations. The students’ goal? To increase their employment prospects by passing the Spanish GED test and earning the equivalent of a high school degree.
Now, even in the wake of temporary state budget cuts to Latino support groups earlier this year, the Junta-sponsored GED program has expanded. As the job market has become increasingly competitive, enrollment in New Haven’s GED classes has surged since its founding six years ago, Hannah Greaves, Junta’s program director for education and community outreach, said. The change has occurred as displaced and dissatisfied workers are increasingly seeking to expand their number of marketable skills, four New Haven adult education advocates interviewed said.
“We really want to try to teach people the skills they need to be independent,” Greaves said. “We try to give them a hand up so that they can be more aware of their rights and their opportunities.
Almost 10 months after Gov. M. Jodi Rell cut all state funding for Latino support programs for two months, Junta and its GED program are still coping with the consequences.
So far, the recession has not forced Junta to cut any of the program’s core classes. Indeed, education programs in general have seen fewer cuts because they are Junta’s primary focus, Greaves said. But Martha Velez, director of NHACE’s GED program, said she is worried that if Junta’s financial situation deteriorates further, the organization may be forced to scale back its class offerings in Fair Haven and students will instead have to travel to locations incompatible with their schedules.
The adult education program is New Haven’s only GED program conducted entirely in Spanish. It is designed to help Spanish-speaking adults who did not complete high school to pass a Spanish-language version of the GED exam, and it draws funding from both the New Haven Public Schools and the federal government, said Johni Puerta-Lopez, a teacher in the program who helped to shape its first curriculum six years ago. Whereas most traditional GED classes are taught in English, for students who are fluent in Spanish but not English, the language barrier can be a deterrent in pursuing a GED, Puerta-Lopez said.
Carlos Torre, president of the New Haven Board of Education, said the Fair Haven program is important because it helps New Haven residents to obtain better job opportunities and improve their socio-economic situations.
A GED signifies high school-level proficiency in five subject areas: reading, writing, math, science, social studies. Caro said in an interview that in today’s economy, a GED or diploma is necessary even to obtain factory work.
The class attracts a diverse group of people, he said. While some could not complete high school because of run-ins with the law, others come because U.S. employers do not accept the diplomas they earned in their countries of origin, he said. Caro said she uses her personal history to relate to and motivate her students. Like many of her students, Caro immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia, where she was a certified engineer with an MBA. Puerta-Lopez said he, too, immigrated from Colombia and has been in the U.S. for nine years.
And like their students, Caro and Puerta-Lopez must juggle their commitment to the program with their commitments to other employers. In addition to teaching the GED class, Caro teaches Spanish at Southern Connecticut State University and Puerta-Lopez holds two other jobs, one of which is teaching Spanish at Gateway Community College. Both said they work for NHACE not for the pay but because it is a rewarding experience.
“I don’t think education is a business,” Caro said. “I see education, especially GED and Spanish education, as a way of making the Spanish community succeed, making the Spanish community come to a better place.”
In many cases, their students’ education does not end when they pass obtain a GED, Caro and Puerta-Lopez said.
Puerta-Lopez said that the majority of his students attend Gateway Community College after graduation. Caro said a student once told her he planned to become a lawyer following his graduation.
When the program first started, Puerta-Lopez said, it primarily emphasized career-training, a practice that has faded away over the years. Now an increasing percentage of the program’s graduates are matriculating at institutions of higher learning.
“When I see my students at Gateway, that’s the prize for me,” Puerta-Lopez said. “That’s the most satisfying to me, to see how my students are going down the road toward their educational goals.”
Three students interviewed said the change is the result of their growing desire to improve their financial position. All three, who hold entry-level jobs in the service industry, said they plan to continue their education after they obtain their GEDs.
“I realize now that the only way for me to get a better job now is to get an education,” student Carmen Dela Rosa said.
NHACE administers the GED test seven times a year, Puerta-Lopez said. The next administration will be later this month.