Merlene Davis: New accelerated adult ed program hopes to get students better jobs

My father had only a high school diploma, but he found work that paid well enough for him to support a family of five and help send his three children to college.

That scenario was pretty much the norm after World War II, but the chances of supporting a family with only a high school diploma nowadays are slim and growing slimmer.

More education is the key to a bigger paycheck. Fortunately, for those with only a GED or high school diploma, help is on the way.

The Accelerating Opportunity program at eight community colleges in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System will give qualifying adults a chance to earn college credits and skills that can lead to better-paying jobs.

A partnership between Kentucky Adult Education, the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board and KCTCS will give adults a chance to get basic adult education at the same time they are taught technical skills. After at least one semester, students will earn a certificate, which they can use to be placed in jobs in that field.

"We know that many students come from the adult education pathway who are maybe behind academically, or older adults who struggle to get into jobs that are careers," said Jay Box, chancellor at KCTCS. "When they enter the college system, they run into the slow process of developmental education before they can get to technical programs. Some get frustrated and drop out."

With this new program, the adult education teacher works side by side with the technical instructor. For example, if a student studying office systems technology at Bluegrass Community and Technical College has a deficiency in sentence structure, the adult education teacher can address that problem and have it put into career context by the office management instructor who is in the same classroom, Box said.

Eight of the 16 community colleges are participating in the program, which is financed in part by the three partners and by a $200,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Joyce Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.

Box and KCTCS President Michael McCall attended a conference at the Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle about a year ago and learned of the new initiative, which is based on the successful I-BEST program that was launched in 2006 in community colleges in Washington state.

Kentucky was one of 11 states to receive the initial planning grant in early spring and is in the running for a $1.6 million implementation grant to be given to five states over three years.

"The three (partners) have rallied our troops whether or not we get funding," Box said. "We know it has had success. Here is an opportunity for us to get engaged in it."

Besides BCTC, the other seven schools that will start the program in January are Gateway, Jefferson, Maysville, Owensboro, Southeast Kentucky, West Kentucky community and technical colleges, and Madisonville Community College. Each will have its own programs geared to what businesses in those areas need.

Box said 11,737 adults in the areas covered by the community colleges would qualify for the program.

At BCTC, the programs are office systems and construction technology. At Gateway and Jefferson, automotive technology is offered. At other sites, it is health care and manufacturing.

"Our goal is to get as much education as we can," said Greg Feeny, BCTC dean of academics support, "but people have life circumstances in which that is not realistic."

Wilma Clapp, BCTC Accelerating Opportunity coordinator, said students will be given a test to evaluate their skill levels. If they are eligible for adult education classes, they will be eligible for Accelerating Opportunity.

All of that will be explained Dec. 8 at an open house for those interested in attending BCTC. The seven other community colleges will have separate events; contact them for more information.

Tuition is the same as for other community college coursework, but Clapp said some grants are available.

"What this all means is that enrolling in the Accelerating Opportunity Program puts a student on the fast track," Clapp said. In 16 weeks, the student can obtain a GED, a certificate in a career pathway and college credit. "It is a wonderful opportunity for a student population that is hesitant to make the leap from high school or GED attainment to college."