The bell on the door chimes as someone enters The Work Station in The Plains, Ohio, but Chelsy Carr is focused on her task. Seated alone at a square meeting table, Carr flips open a new folder from the stack before her. She looks through it, then carefully prints another name and address on a yellow legal pad. Those names belong to people who studied through the Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) program at the Station and went on to pass the GED test. Just a month earlier, Carr was one of them.
There are only a few other people at The Work Station this morning, but their muted conversations still glide over the cubicle partitions that separate boxy offices, computer labs and resource rooms. With its neutral walls and gray cubicles, the Station reflects its bureaucratic mission. The Work Station is a one-stop community center, a part of the Athens County Jobs and Family Services program that offers a variety of government programs that provide education and opportunities. The staff at the Station sees people at all stages of employment and education, encouraging them to make use of the Station’s free public computer lab, resume workshops and job boards, among many other resources that include the Ohio ABLE program.
For a majority of two decades, Joe McGowan, the Station’s director, has worked with the ABLE program, a state-sponsored higher education initiative that works to improve adult literacy.
“When I say adult basic literacy, it’s a whole spectrum of literacy,” McGowan says. “Primarily, we are doing basic literacy, working with people, sometimes with learning disabilities, but also getting people ready for the GED [test].”
The ABLE program provides instruction in language arts, mathematical reasoning, science and social studies, all of which are included on the GED test. Adults who participate in the program are not required to take the GED test, but for many, passing the test is their ultimate goal.
That was the case for Carr, who dropped out of high school about three months before her graduation, much to the surprise of her family.
“Some of the classes I wasn’t doing as well in, and so I’m just like, ‘Well, I just can’t do it anymore,’” she says. “I was 18, so I said, ‘I’m just going to quit.’”
She didn’t tell anyone she was dropping out. She simply stopped going to school.
“I regret it now, but there’s nothing I can do now,” Carr says. “At least I got my GED [diploma].”
A GRADING CURVE
Carr visited the Station soon after she dropped out; she knew about The Work Station from living in the area, and her aunt went through its program to prepare for her GED test. But she didn’t commit to the program until a few years later when she was in her 20s.
Passing the test took time, and during the years Carr spent at the Station, the ABLE program underwent a series of fundamental changes at every level. Together, those changes contributed to a massive decrease in the number of people attempting and passing the GED test in the state of Ohio.
In 2013, the federal government created new standards for adult education based on the Common Core State Standards, known as the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education. The Ohio ABLE program adopted those revised standards in 2014. That same year saw the launch of a revised GED test that matched Common Core Standards.
McGowan witnessed the rollout of those new nationwide standards, along with the 300 percent raise in test prices and the digitization of the GED test that all occurred within a five-year period.
“It’s kinda sad because if you don’t have a diploma or a GED [certificate], you can’t get [federal] financial aid,” he says. “It’s hard to get in the military; sometimes it’s hard to find a job, too, nowadays.”
In July 2015, The Columbus Dispatch reported the total number of GED test takers dropped by about 71 percent from 2013 to 2014. Eighty-six percent fewer people passed the test over the same time frame. The last revision of the GED test in 2002 led to 62 percent fewer people passing the test in 2002 than in 2001.
Carr also experienced those changes firsthand as she worked to obtain her GED diploma. As a single mother, she divided her attention between her studies and her duties as a parent. At The Work Station, Carr studied using the computer program Aztec, which allows the user to do daily practice problems.
Math, the subject that gave her the most trouble in high school, was her biggest struggle on the GED test. The algebra and geometry section proved difficult, and she remembers failing the test many times. But she stayed motivated throughout the process with inspiration from Scott Hatfield, one of her teachers at The Work Station, and her daughter, who is now 6 years old.
“I wanted to give up a few times. I was like, ‘I’m done, I can’t do it,’ but Scott was just like, ‘Yeah, you can.’” Carr says. “He helped me when I was struggling. And my daughter is pretty much what kept me going. I didn’t want to quit and make her think I’m a failure.”
CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP
Meanwhile, administrative changes centralized the program, literally and figuratively. During what she describes as a “tectonic shift” in adult literacy education, Katherine Fergus was an employee of Ohio University’s Edward Stevens Center for the Study and Development of Literacy and Language, one of four parent ABLE resource centers in the state of Ohio. According to its website, the Stevens Literacy Center coordinated the ABLE resource efforts in Southeast Ohio, working to research and develop solutions for low-level literacy and language development. The center provided instructional materials and professional development for the staff administering the program at local ABLE centers, including The Work Station. Fergus joined the Stevens Literacy Center in 2006 and worked as a resource librarian there for several years before advancing to the job of program coordinator.
The Ohio Department of Higher Education, formerly the Ohio Board of Regents, is responsible for statewide higher education; it took over administration of the ABLE program from the Ohio Department of Education while Fergus worked at the Stevens Literacy Center. In fall 2012, the centers learned from the Ohio Department of Higher Education that they would now have to compete for their grant money. An email sent in spring 2013 informed Fergus that the four regional centers would be consolidated into one central location at Ohio State University.
Fergus still lives in Athens, but now works at Ohio State in a position similar to the one she held at Ohio University. She is dedicated to improving the program as much as possible.
“When I was at the central southeast ABLE resource center, I spent a fair amount of time going out to programs and … there was more of a connection between the resource center and the individual ABLE programs or the sites,” she says.
She’s noticed less of a connection since the transition happened and is “trying to find the recipe to fix it.”
In the meantime, the Stevens Literacy Center has been inactive since its former director, James Salzman, retired in 2015. Although the center moved with the Patton College of Education into Lindley Hall, its doors have remained closed.
But another change opened a door for Carr. In March 2016, the GED test administrators lowered the exam’s passing score from 150 to 145 to better match the test to current high school graduates’ knowledge. Carr’s lowest score, math, was a 146, meaning she and 1,424 other Ohio citizens retroactively passed once the new changes took effect. Her family threw her a surprise party to celebrate.
“The work finally paid off, after all these years,” Carr says with a small laugh. “It took forever. … Sometimes, it’s not even set in my mind that I have it, still, because it took me just so long to get it.”
ONLY THE BEGINNING
In the job resources area of The Work Station, Carr staples newspaper clippings of job openings to a bulletin board. Stacks of brochures that detail how to look for jobs and plot potential career paths sit on the low bookshelves in the center of the room. In March 2016, Carr began working at The Work Station as an intern, the term the Station gives to those who join them through the Work Experience Program. Her daily tasks range from copying and faxing to updating the job board. The position is only temporary, however, and Carr is actively looking for work on the side.
The revised ABLE program aims to equip people with the necessary skills to succeed in the job market, as opposed to only improving a person’s literacy. Now that the dust has settled, Fergus believes the changes to the ABLE program have been beneficial.
“We are all basically speaking with one mouth now, one voice, whereas before, … we all said the same thing, but the branding wasn’t always consistent,” Fergus says. “The message wasn’t always consistent [even if] the intention was always the same.”
She believes that consistency has led to more widespread knowledge of the services ABLE can provide to the public.
Those goals align with a new initiative from the state of Ohio. The Comprehensive Case Management and Employment Program (CCMEP), which launched July 1, works to provide enrollees with education, training and appropriate government services to help them find employment.
“The whole purpose of this program is to spend … more time with these individuals and help them overcome any barriers that they have,” McGowan says. “We’re going to try to do some goal-setting, too. That’s another big thing. I don’t think these people had folks do that with them before.”
The ABLE program is just one option that enrollees can add to their individual opportunity plans (IOP). After identifying a person’s goals, the IOP lays out the specific challenges the person faces in completing those goals and determines which government services best match him or her. Participants in the program must commit to 20 hours per week for a total of 80 hours over the course of one month. During that time, enrollees gain experience with performing online job searches, resume writing and mock interviewing, or whatever else their IOPs specify. The Work Station is currently planning to partner with other county institutions for lessons in financial and fiscal literacy, along with small business operation experience. When the class is over, the Station’s staff will follow up with the participants to ensure they are on a path toward success.
“We’re going to find out if they need to get their GED [diplomas], do they need to do some job shadowing or on-the-job training to try to find employment?” McGowan says. “Do they need to go to school to get some training to get them ready for a job, or are we going to put them in another work environment where they can study some work skills?”
Funding for CCMEP comes from two sources: Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds from the federal government and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grants from the state. The statewide allocation for the 2017 fiscal year is close to $115 million; Athens County alone will receive more than $1.1 million.
Because of the funds from which the program pulls, enrollment in CCMEP is required for WOIA eligible youth (ages 16–24) and work-eligible Ohio Works First (OWF) participants as a condition of receiving funding. OWF participants who have not been determined to be work-eligible may elect to participate. The Athens County Department of Jobs and Family Services will refer those individuals to the program. Those receiving WIOA assistance have been identified to have a potential barrier to employment, such as coming from a low-income family, being deficient in basic literacy skills or dropping out of school, among other criteria.
CCMEP classes began in the second week of September. Two of the attendees, Martin Glanz and Kirsten Campo, sit at the computer lab. Campo, 19, completed the ABLE program in December 2015 and received her GED diploma. Glanz, 24, has his high school diploma and is hoping to get his commercial driver’s license. Both are in the early stages of parenting; Campo is expecting a child, and Glanz has a son. Together, the two listen to the instructor explain how to navigate the OhioMeansJobs website.
Carr was not there to see them; she had moved on to full-time employment. Following her time at The Work Station, Carr worked for a short time at another agency before accepting a job offer at Kroger. When she returned to visit the Station, the staff said she seemed different: happier and more confident in herself.