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The GED: Just the Beginning
Earning a high school diploma is hard work

In a classroom in Phipps, students, from left, Andre Johnson, Pat DeShields and Janet Wilson work problems on the board.

It’s an afternoon in October, and we’re all bent over math workbooks in a cramped classroom on the third floor of Phipps, studying fractions. Under the sharp eye of teacher Pat Cowley, we’re adding, subtracting and multiplying fractions as fast as we can, finding common denominators and occasionally, borrowing. Borrowing!

None of it is easy, let me tell you, especially if, like Pat DeShields or Cleveland Chavis, you are 50 years old and haven’t ventured into a classroom for 35 years. But DeShields and Chavis, both of Environmental Services, are determined to earn their high school diplomas. That is why, along with five other employees, they’re here in class, engaged in a course called Accelerated GED.

General Educational Development is offered by Skills Enhancement, a program that helps employees boost basic skills in order to meet minimum job requirements, pass various tests, or prepare for other positions. Skills Enhancement also offers courses in college-prep algebra, computer applications, medical terminology, American Sign Language, and English as a Second Language. Several tutorials, scheduled throughout the day, help employees brush up on basic skills.

More than a year ago, Skills Enhancement’s GED component got a big shot in the arm when the U.S. Department of Labor awarded the Health System a $3 million grant to build on its existing career-training programs. The initiative came to be known as Project REACH (see sidebar below).

Thanks to Project REACH, Skills Enhancement has added four Accelerated GED classes, with seven or eight students, on average, in each. (GED level one and tutorials feed students into the grant-supported accelerated GED levels.)

There is nothing easy about Accelerated GED. Students are in class for three hours, four days a week. They study math, reading and writing, social studies and science. Test-taking and study skills are emphasized, because everything culminates in a rigorous, two-part exam given on two consecutive Saturdays at various locations throughout the state. Those who pass earn a bona fide, Maryland state high school diploma.

Pat DeShields has already taken the test. She passed the social studies section. Now she is working on her math and writing skills. She is worried about algebra. She never had it back when she was in school. She needs to master it so she can pass the exam. “I’m praying on it,” she says.

For Cleveland Chavis, math comes relatively easily. “I know measurements like the back of my hand, and I understand percents and fractions. That’s money.” What’s been hard is learning in an academic environment. “I’m a worldly person. I have my own style. It’s been hard to understand the way problems are presented in a book.” (Sam needs 2/3 cubic yards of concrete. He’s already mixed 4/9 of a cubic yard. How much more does he still have to mix?)

Barbara Edwards

No one perhaps is more attuned to the rigors of the Accelerated GED than Barbara Edwards, director of Skills Enhancement. “It’s tough to get a high school diploma when you’re a working adult with myriad responsibilities.” she says. “Employees starting the course often feel academically inferior, insecure and unsure of what they can do. We watch them become confident, focused learners. They’re more in charge of their lives. It’s a beautiful transition.”

Edwards, herself a veteran teacher, now has 11 instructors, all experienced adult educators. Thanks to Project REACH, at least five now are putting in 20 hours a week, and Cowley is teaching a three-hour GED class in the morning and another in the afternoon, four days a week.

As with most Project REACH training programs, Accelerated GED participants must have their manager’s consent to spend time in class, away from the workplace. Students maintain their full salaries, as Project REACH supports their work release time.

Since October 2004, 10 employees have earned high school diplomas, and some two dozen more are in the pipeline. The GED grads were honored in September at a Project REACH graduation ceremony.

“You made it. You earned your high school diploma. It’s your ticket to a bright future,” Edwards told them. “You not only reached your goal, you grabbed it with both hands, and now you can touch your future.”

Anne Bennett Swingle

Info: Barbara Edwards, 410-614-0273. Call now to inquire about the Accelerated GED for winter/spring 2006.

Taking It to Scale

For more than a decade, the Health System has offered employees training opportunities, but thanks to Project REACH, says Pamela Paulk, “we’ve really been able to take it to scale.”

Project REACH is a dynamic workforce development program that’s opened the door for Health System employees to dozens of career training programs. It has been funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. “The grant has allowed us to move people forward very quickly in a concentrated period,” says Paulk, Health System VP for Human Resources.

Since it began in June 2004, Project REACH has touched literally hundreds of employees. More than 850 sent in applications, some 700 were formally assessed, and about 400 have either completed or are currently in training or skill-development programs.

Some are becoming patient service coordinators or clerical associates. A few are working on their high school diplomas (see main story). Others are in certificate or degree-bearing programs, training for such positions as digital film clerks, surgery or radiology techs, respiratory therapists, pharmacy or anesthesiology techs.

Positions like these are becoming increasingly hard to fill. And that, in part, is the point of Project Reach. “We’re growing our own to address the critical shortage in the health care industry,” explains Ron Peterson, Health System president. “We’re giving our own people the opportunity to move up.”

On Sept. 22, 77 Project REACH graduates were honored at a jubilant ceremony in Hurd Hall.

There was kudos all around. “I’ve seen the excitement in your face, watched you dress for success, give me a firm handshake and develop into individuals who are ready to move forward,” Ken Grant, VP for general services, told the graduates of business skills, a program designed for employees with poor performance but high potential. “Remember, this is just the beginning. There is a lot more that you can do.”

The 18-month grant ends officially in December, but Paulk has applied for a one-year, no-cost extension, as current project participants complete their training programs. Beyond that, while workforce development programs clearly will not be sustained at the same level and pace, “we will continue to give employees the opportunity to advance and fill our vacancies in an affordable way,” Paulk says.

From Project REACH have come valuable lessons. “We’ve introduced employees to partnering with us to gain the skills they need,” says Paulk. “I truly believe that one of the greatest gifts you can give an employee is a skill. It’s something that can never be taken away.”

Anne Bennett Swingle




Johns Hopkins Medicine

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