- Associated Press - Friday, April 3, 2015

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) - While growing up, a family member always told Geraldean Bradley she wasn’t intelligent. And for a long time, Bradley said, she believed it.

So she dropped out of high school. But with support from family and friends, Bradley, of Dexter, Missouri, was able to rebuild her self-confidence.

She earned her GED certificate when she was 32. And at age 57, Bradley recently graduated from Metro Business College with a medical office assistant diploma.

Now, she’s paying it forward.

During class, Bradley learned of adults in the area who have a difficult time affording a test to earn the high-school equivalency certificate.

In January 2014, Missouri changed from the GED test to the HiSET test for people wanting to earn their equivalency certificates.

Becky Atwood, coordinator for the Cape Girardeau Adult Education and Literacy program, said although the HiSET test at $95 is less expensive than the new GED test, which can cost more than $120, it is more costly than the previous $40 GED.

“This places a real financial hardship on many students who are already struggling with paying bills,” she said.

The increased cost is one reason for a decline in the number of people earning their certificates, Atwood said.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 136 adults earned their equivalency certificates. The following year, which included the January change to the HiSET test, 115 people earned a certificate.

As of March 27, Atwood said 43 people had received the certificate. That total doesn’t include those who will take the test over the next couple months, she said, but the number still will be low compared to previous years.

Other factors that could affect the decline, she said, include an economy that appears to be improving and the test’s move from paper to computers.

As the economy moves forward, more lower-wage jobs open, Atwood said. And when an adult is faced with going back to school or keeping a job, even if it’s low-paying, he or she is going to continue working.

“It keeps them in the same cycle they’ve been in,” Atwood said.

And although many people know how to use cellphones and computers, there still are those who remain uncomfortable with the idea of taking a computer-based test, she said.

To help with the increase in testing fees, the program seeks donations to sponsor students, the Southeast Missourian (https://bit.ly/1Ns0pRL ) reports.

When Diane Jordan, career services coordinator for Metro Business College, learned of students struggling to pay for equivalency testing, she asked others at the college to get involved and raise money.

The college initially said it had raised $400 to sponsor students. But March 12, Jordan — along with the college’s director, Jan Reimann, and business instructor Pamela Riehn — surprised the program with a $1,000 donation. That donation included a $100 gift from Bradley.

Bradley said if her donation helps one person realize he or she is worth something, “then that’s worth it to me.”

The Adult Education and Literacy program is funded through state and federal grants and has been sponsored by the Cape Girardeau School District since the 1970s.

“In order for us to exist, we have to have approval of the school board, and we have to have approval of the school superintendent,” she said. “They approve the grants that we submit. We are a program within the district, but we are funded primarily through grant funding.”

The school district and other partners provide things such as space, phones and fax machines, Atwood said, and the majority of the state and federal funding goes toward salaries and benefits.

“If we did not exist, there would be no way for people who drop out of high school to complete their high school equivalency,” she said. “You may be the best worker in a business, but if you don’t have that high-school diploma or equivalency, you can’t become a supervisor.”

Mandy Retherford, a teacher at the program since 2008, said many of her students cringe when they learn the test costs $95.

Cathy Matthews, who has been teaching adults for 20 years, said some students already are worrying about how they’re going to pay their utility bills or how they’re going to come up with gas money for the rest of the week.

“People come in here after working 12-hour shifts,” Matthews said, and telling them they’ll have to pay $95 to take the test adds another obstacle to their lives.

“The donations are a big thing,” Retherford said, “because it’s awesome for us to be able to say, ‘We can take care of that test for you.’”

Matthews added: “You can just see the relief. It’s almost tangible. And then they’re renewed in their motivation to get this done, because they actually have an opportunity to take it and go from there.”

LaShanda Hines, who lives in Cape Girardeau, was laid off from her job in September 2013. She started taking classes to earn her equivalency certificate that October, and a MERS Goodwill program covered the testing fee.

“If they wouldn’t have paid for it, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it,” said Hines, who has three children.

With her diploma, she got a new job at AT&T; and plans to further her education by earning a degree in nursing.

“Everybody goes through the struggle now and again,” she said. “We all have dreams; we have goals. Don’t let one thing jeopardize what you’re trying to do in life.”

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Information from: Southeast Missourian, https://www.semissourian.com

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