GED test takers face a painful price of progress

ST. PETERSBURG

Twenty bucks.

For many, it's the cost of cocktails on a Friday evening. Lunch for two at a midpriced restaurant. A week's worth of lattes.

For 46-year-old Charles Bronson, it's another bump in the road toward a high school diploma.

Bronson, who does odd jobs for $7 an hour, started classes at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center in April. He had hoped to sit for the GED test before the end of the year.

Then he found out the cost of the test is increasing from $50 to $70.

"It's a lot of money when you don't have anything," Bronson said. "It seems like a million bucks when you don't have a dollar in your pocket."

His lament has echoed at adult education centers since the Pinellas School Board voted Oct. 14 to raise the price of the GED test to offset rising costs for materials and scoring. But nowhere is the increase being felt more keenly than at Tomlinson, where the median household income in the surrounding area is the lowest in the county, and where 40 percent of families with children live below the poverty level.

"They're a check away from homelessness," said Mary Putnam, a reading coach who retired from the district two years ago but came back three months later to work part time at the center.

"We forget that, those of us with houses and jobs and an education."

• • •

Putnam and Tomlinson director Debby VanderWoude hated having to break the news to their students that the General Educational Development test will cost more beginning Nov. 1.

But they understood why the price had to go up.

For more than two years, the district has been losing about $6 on each test it administers. It's the same with other districts throughout the state.

Hoping to offer relief in the face of an additional $11 increase for scoring the tests, the state Board of Education told the districts they could begin charging test candidates up to $70.

"We were operating at a loss and it was beginning to add up," said Dave Barnes, the district's director of workforce education. "Eventually, it would have caught up with us."

When Barnes presented the agenda item to the School Board, board member Jane Gallucci expressed concern that the increase would be a hardship for members of the community who typically are the most financially strapped.

Gallucci suggested that the district might look for a corporate partner to subsidize the increase, an idea not without precedent.

Read Pinellas, a group of dues-paying teachers, provided $7,500 last year to adult education students who were able to demonstrate need as well as high scores on the GED pretest.

The Rotary Club of St. Petersburg donated another $2,200. Together, the two groups assisted nearly 200 test takers.

But for every student who receives assistance, many go without, VanderWoude said. That's why teachers quietly offer to pay the test fee for a student here, a student there.

"There's probably not a GED teacher who hasn't at some point paid a fee," she said. "We consider it a charitable donation."

• • •

Twice a week for almost two years, Donna Gaines has boarded a bus bound for Tomlinson, where she studies math and English, science and social studies.

Gaines, 48, left high school after 11th grade, got married and had three children. She worked for years in a school cafeteria but quit to take care of her ailing husband.

Now unemployed and a widow, she counts nickels and dimes to put food on the table while she dreams of becoming a medical transcriptionist, or maybe a cosmetologist.

When the cost of a bus pass rose from $45 to $55 this month, she struggled to work the increase into her budget.

When she found out she'll have to pay an extra $20 to take the GED test, she realized she might have to put it off until December rather than sitting for it next month as she had planned.

Still, she's determined to do it.

"I want my kids to look back and say, 'My mama did her best to take care of us,' " Gaines said.

• • •

On Tuesday, Putnam was in Room 112, a bright, airy space with motivational posters tacked to the wall, when a weather-beaten man arrived.

He said a counselor at the Center of Hope, a transitional housing complex several blocks away, had referred him.

He said he had run away from a foster home when he was 12 and only went to school through the sixth grade.

"You can show me a word and I know what it is, but I can't spell it," he said.

Putnam suggested that he come back on Thursday and begin working with a tutor. He smiled and nodded and thanked her for her time.

"There are a lot of needy students," Putnam said after he had left. "There are a lot of personal hardships."

The saddest thing, Putnam thinks, would be if those students had to defer their dreams even one more day for the sake of $20.

By the numbers

3,369

GED tests administered in Pinellas County in the 2007-08 school year

2,263

Florida diplomas awarded by the Pinellas district's department of adult, community and workforce education in the 2007-08 school year

738,930

Candidates nationwide who took at least one of the five sections of the GED test in 2007

451,759

Candidates nationwide who passed all five sections of the GED test in 2007

Source: Pinellas County School District, American Council on Education

States with the highest testing volumes in 2007*

Texas: 53,000 candidates

New York: 53,000 candidates

California: 52,000 candidates

Florida: 47,000 candidates

Georgia: 31,000 candidates

*Numbers are approximate

Source: American Council on Education

Fast facts

• More than 17-million people have earned a GED credential since 1943

• Completing the entire test battery takes a tad over seven hours.

• Only 60 percent of graduating high school seniors would pass the GED test on their first attempt.

• 98 percent of colleges and universities that require a high school diploma accept the GED credential

• 96 percent of companies accept applicants with a GED credential for jobs requiring a high school diploma.

Source: American Council on Education

To learn more

For more information about adult education programs in Pinellas County, call the school district's office of workforce education at (727) 588-6094.

GED test takers face a painful price of progress 10/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:40pm]

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