At 18, Simon knew all about Medicaid but had less than 2 years of high school education.
As a sophomore, he had dropped out of school to care for his sick grandmother and work part-time at the local Jiffy Lube. When his grandmother died, he couldn't afford to pay her real estate taxes. He lost her house—and his home—and eventually entered the transitional living program at Aunt Martha's Youth Service Center, a Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) grantee serving counties in northeastern Illinois.
To staff at Aunt Martha's, Simon seemed like a good candidate for the General Educational Development tests, commonly called the GED. But Simon didn't think he needed a GED credential because he already had a job. Plus, he'd heard the test was hard, that no one passed it on the first try. Aunt Martha's staff members turned him around. "We told him, 'You can change oil all your life,'" says Kyla Williams, division manager for comprehensive services at Aunt Martha's. "'That's OK. But how about owning your own Jiffy Lube?'"
Less than 3 months later, Simon passed the GED tests, which allowed him to enroll in Jiffy Lube's management training program.
Simon's story is not exactly typical—most young people take longer to prepare for the tests—but it illustrates an important point. Youth service providers say that for young people like Simon who've missed several years of school and don't see themselves going back, the GED is often a good option, one that can lead to other educational and career opportunities.
A credential used in lieu of a high school diploma, the GED consists of five tests designed to measure whether students have the level of academic ability normally acquired in high school.
"Typically, if we have a youth who has been out of high school for more than 2 years, we go the GED route," Williams says.
The GED Versus High School
The GED's value compared to a traditional high school degree has long been debated. Some studies show that GED credential holders earn less than those who graduated high school. Many youth service providers agree that a high school diploma is preferable.
"We always encourage traditional education first," says Kelly Fleming, director of youth services at Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency, a FYSB grantee in central New York. "There are just so many more opportunities than with the GED," she explains, citing sports, music, arts, and guidance counseling as some of the things high school can offer to students.
By going to high school, students also meet a wider group of young people than they might interact with in an alternative school or GED program, says Lee Trevithick, executive director of Cocoon House, a FYSB grantee in Everett, Washington. Extracurricular activities, he says, "are great opportunities to develop youth leadership skills and connect with diverse peers and teachers."
Still, for some older youth, going back to high school can be a burden in a number of ways, and in those circumstances, Fleming says, the GED may be a better choice for young people.
"For instance, if they're older, and they've been out of school for a number of years, and it's going be really awkward socially, or they have an apartment and bills and need to keep a job," she says. "Going to school would mean losing their job and shelter."
Plus, many public high schools won't accept a 16-year-old freshman, Williams says, and many require students to graduate by age 21. That means that the GED is sometimes the only option for older homeless youth with very few or no high school credits.
"A lot of our youth, by the time they come to our transitional living program, are 18, 19, 20 years old and way behind," says Pat Holterman- Hommes, senior vice president of youth programs at Youth in Need, a FYSB grantee in St. Charles, Missouri. "We help youth weigh their options and make their own decisions … I would say for many of our youth GED is the best choice, just because they're so behind. They would be 21 or 22 at graduation, and for most, that isn't a realistic or attractive option."
In addition, runaway and homeless youth often have a history of bad experiences in school. "Some of them have such an aversion to school," Trevithick says. "You could send them to the best school in the world and they wouldn't benefit from it because their early educational experiences were so poor."
For those young people who just can't function in the structured environment of a traditional school, a couple of hours a day of GED instruction, along with counseling and support from caring adults, can be a better fit than having to sit in a classroom all day.
Preparing for the Tests
Once a young person has decided to prepare for the GED tests, service providers say, the next step is to assess what level of preparation they need. (Educational assessment may already have been done as part of the program's initial intake process.) At Aunt Martha's, youth take a computerized "modulated," or more basic, version of the tests. How well the young person does helps staff to determine how much he or she needs to learn before taking the actual tests, Williams says.
Next, students need help adjusting to the rigors of preparing for an exam. "Most of them have been out of school for a long time, so they need help getting acclimated to studying and interpreting what they read," Williams says. Often, students need help building their reasoning skills as well as learning material.
Williams notes that like many standardized tests, the GED contains some cultural bias. "Some of the language in the tests—African American and Latino youth aren't spoken to that way," Williams says, which can lead to biased test results. That means nonnative English speakers and young people from minority groups need to be prepared for unfamiliar language and concepts. In addition, Williams says, young people often come across textbook examples that are not relevant to them. To overcome that problem, Williams and her staff might talk about speeding tickets to help young people understand a math equation, or use made-up acronyms to help them remember a historical incident. "We make sure it's relational, something they can take with them," she says.
"They really don't like a lot of history," Williams says of the youth her program serves. "They like math, science, things that are more creative. They don't like learn and repeat."
Though Aunt Martha's refers youth to offsite GED training centers, staff spend an hour or more a day working with clients on GED preparation, in addition to the time the young people spend in the centers. The extra attention keeps young people on track, Williams says. "At the GED center they're told, 'It'll take you a year,'" she explains. "They get frustrated. A lot of homeless youth don't have that long-term vision. That's why everyday sessions are important."
"If we left them to their own devices, they'd spend a lot of time spinning their wheels in these programs," she adds.
Unlike Aunt Martha's, Larkin Street Youth Services, a FYSB grantee in San Francisco, offers onsite GED preparation. Instruction is set up for different learning styles, says Andrew Niklaus, director of education and employment services. "There is peer-to-peer learning and individual work taking place. We also offer separate spaces for youth who excel in a more isolated learning environment," he says.
Key to helping runaway and homeless youth prepare for the GED, Williams says, is tapping into the intelligence they have that doesn't come from books. "It's just being able to tie in what those books say to [the skills] they've built to cope," she says.
A Stepping Stone
Youth workers emphasize that in today's tough job market, with the wage gap for low-skilled workers growing, the GED should not be an end in itself for young people.
"A GED should be presented to youth with a realistic understanding," says Dennis Enix, executive director of Safe Place Services at the YMCA of Greater Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. "If they are making 6 bucks an hour, when they complete their GED their boss is not going to give them a raise and they are not going now to be able to get a 10-buck-an-hour job. The GED must be sold as a stepping stone to college."
Williams echoes that idea. To go on to community college or vocational school and increase their job-specific skills, youth need a high school degree or GED, she says. Often, youth in her program have already tried to enroll in trade school and been turned away.
"[The GED] gives them the opportunity to pursue other educational opportunities," Williams says. As such, she adds, "it decreases their likelihood to remain homeless. The kids realize that."
"These kids don't have anyone in their lives who tell them, 'You can live outside of your circumstances,'" she says. "Our job is to tap inside their abilities, to help them see the possibilities."