This story is part of a two-part series on adult education in the Virgin Islands.
Jan. 22, 2006 — A couple blocks north of the downtown shopping district is a yellow building selling second chances for a little cash and a lot of effort.
"It's like a second lease on life," said Adult Education Center Program Administrator Dahlia Adams, between frequent incoming phone calls. The center prepares students to take the General Educational Development (GED) test.
Preparing for the test isn't easy, said Nelson Baptiste, who passed the test in 2005. Baptiste said keeping his eyes on the prize — his GED — was what kept him motivated.
"I just kept focusing on my school work," Baptiste, now 18, said.
The center's function is to help students like Baptiste, who came to St. Thomas from Dominica at age 16. Baptiste said he would have had to go back a year in school if he went to high school on St. Thomas. So he chose to get his GED, a goal he met in just 5 months.
Baptiste is now working two part-time jobs and is interested in business and architecture. He plans to start working on his associate's degree soon.
He said the teachers "really push you."
Teachers at the center help students who are from many Caribbean islands, have differing abilities and education levels and varying levels of motivation. In some cases, the test material just isn't very fun to learn, and Adult Education teacher Bonnie Braga said it takes a bit of creativity to keep the students interested.
The GED test is a federal, standardized, primarily multiple-choice, 7-hour examination of a student's abilities in math, science, social studies and English.
The GED test is offered every other month, and the pre-GED test, which students must pass before taking the GED test, is offered on alternate months. Passing the GED, for most purposes, is similar to getting a high school diploma.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the GED tests were developed in the early '40s, during World War II. Many people who served in the military during the war did not graduate high school because they quit to join the armed services, or because they left high school for other reasons and joined the military later on.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed for college education financial assistance for war veterans, but without high school diplomas, many could not go to college anyway. The GED test was a way of helping those veterans.
The number of students taking the GED has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception. Through the '50s, fewer than 60,000 students passed the test each year. By the mid-'90s, nearly 750,000 students passed yearly, according to statistics from the GED Testing Service, which administers the tests at centers throughout the United States and the territories. The GED is part of the American Council on Education, a federal government agency.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Adult Education Center (AEC) opened in June 1977 as an effort between the V.I. departments of Education and Labor and the Work Incentive Program.
Most of the current students are between 16 and 22 years old, though some are in their 30s.
Many students who attend the center are already juggling work and family, and adding school to the mix isn't easy, Adams said. The time it takes a student to study and pass the GED depends almost entirely on the student, Adams said. Factors include how much education they have and how much time they devote to studying.
"We can push you all we want, but it's very individualized," she added.
Many students come to the AEC because they want to be able to get better jobs and make more money when they graduate, Adams said.
According to U.S. Department of Education, students who pass the GED tend to have higher wages than students without GEDs. However, those earning GEDs still earn slightly less than high school graduates. How much more or less those with GEDs make depends largely on the labor market and the employment field.
To help some students who do have part- or full-time jobs already, hte AEC offers classes in the morning and afternoon, and evening classes are offered at three locations: Charlotte Amalie High School and Addelita Cancryn Jr. High on St. Thomas and Julius E. Sprauve Elementary School on St. John.
But for some students, the lure of making more money later isn't enough to keep them in the program, especially those who are both working and attending classes.
Adams said many students start working part- or full-time jobs while they are in the program, and they stop attending class because of scheduling conflicts.
Adams has talked to students' bosses about their work schedules to help them attend classes, she said, and she encourages the students to go to class whenever they can.
"I tell the students, 'You have no excuse. I don't want to hear you're working,'" she said.
Some students, like 22-year-old Clayton Battice, work at night and attend classes during the day.
But this can lead to another challenge: being tired.
"You try to find your rest in between," Battice said.
Battice was in an accident several years ago, he said, and missed a few months of high school to heal. He tried to return, but found balancing school and recovery difficult.
"I realized I was wasting too much time," Battice said. He says he joined the Adult Education program so he can "move on with [his] life."
When he finishes the program, Battice said he'd like to move to the mainland to get a better job because the opportunities on St. Thomas are very limited. Battice's father lives in Indiana and is in the trucking business — something Battice is thinking seriously about himself.
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