In three years, 1,300 more people in Racine, Walworth and Kenosha counties could have their high school equivalency diploma in hand and be better positioned to fill pressing worker shortages throughout the region.
That’s the goal of a growing partnership among Gateway Technical College, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin, the Southeastern Wisconsin Workforce Development Board and Higher Expectations for Racine County, which was recently awarded $5.6 million from Gov. Tony Evers’ administration as part of a $60 million statewide workforce innovation initiative.
The grant allows YWCA and Gateway’s existing HSED program – which has graduated roughly 500 people over the past four years – to expand its scope and provide more support for graduates in their transition to higher-earning jobs or continuing on to higher education.
YWCA launched its HSED program in Milwaukee in 2015. For decades prior to that, the Milwaukee-based organization had operated a GED program. But in 2014, a new, more rigorous and computer-based GED exam was released, and scores plummeted nationally. YWCA had been graduating 300 to 400 people annually through its program. Following the test change, that number dwindled to just a handful.
“The cost was huge because, without that foundational credential, you’re stuck,” said Jennifer de Montmollin, chief program officer for YWCA. “Not only are there many jobs you can’t access, but if you want to go to a tech school or a four-year or even take a training program, you need that foundational credential.”
The organization worked with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to create a four-month program that would help people get their HSED (an alternative to the GED), developing curriculum that was contextualized for adult learners and partnering with instructors from Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Leaders soon discovered the benefits of having cohorts of students go through the program together rather than working one-on-one with a mentor through a GED program.[caption id="attachment_541406" align="alignright" width="300"] Scott Fricke graduated from YWCA’s HSED program in December.[/caption]
“What we didn’t understand would be so powerful is that everybody coming out of these first couple of graduating classes said, ‘This is like family. You all have become like family,’” de Montmollin said, adding that the sense of connection led to a greater commitment to the class. “… Not only are they supporting each other academically, … they’re also supporting each other with attendance. It produced an 87% graduation rate.”
In 2017, responding to a push in Racine County to get more residents credentialed with their GED, YWCA advocated local leaders consider using the organization’s HSED model. YWCA didn’t have the funding to expand its program southward, but de Montmollin said leaders were confident it would work out.
“Because it was so successful here in Milwaukee, we knew it would be there as well – that, if we built it, essentially, they would come,” she said.
YWCA found a partner in Gateway Technical College, with the tech college providing instructors and the YWCA providing wraparound services to help address barriers to students’ completion of the class.
In August 2017, the program graduated an inaugural class of 13. That number has since grown to 500. Despite the pandemic, which forced classes to go virtual, the program saw a 27% increase in graduates from March 2020 to 2021. Students have ranged in age from 18 to 72; the majority have been women.
“Many of the people that we serve, at the time that they were in high school originally, stuff happened,” de Montmollin said. “And in many cases, it was dealing with very adult-level responsibilities at a very young age, and the need to deal with that got in the way of progressing with school.”
Many graduates have ended up becoming evangelists for the program, encouraging family members and friends to also get their HSED. One cohort included a family of five, including multiple generations, de Montmollin said.
The efficiency of the program – at four months, compared to traditional year-long GED programs – works well for students who are ready for the condensed format, said Cyndean Jennings, dean of the School of Pre-College and Momentum Programs and dean of Racine campus affairs at Gateway.
It also benefits employers, said Michelle Blanchard, project director for the Southeastern Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.
“It makes a huge difference. We have employers right now that are screaming for individuals who have the minimum qualifications to take their openings,” Blanchard said. “So, having folks who have that baseline educational level as quickly as possible in our region helps to fill some of those opportunities.”
Scott Fricke, a contractor of 30 years, was referred to YWCA’s program last year.
“I found myself disabled and out of work and needed to figure out what was next,” said Fricke, who is a Burlington resident. “To go back to school, I knew I first needed my GED if I’m going to do that.”
It had been a long time since Fricke, 55, had last been in a classroom. Going into the course, he was concerned about math, like many of his classmates, but the experience was positive, and it gave him confidence in his abilities as a student. He graduated in December.
“I really liked the process,” Fricke said. “Being in a classroom setting again let me know whether I could be a student. And I found out that I could be a better student than I was in high school.”
Fricke is figuring out his next steps; he’s considering several options, including computer-based jobs in the contracting field, becoming a freight broker, or another role that would allow him to work now that he is in a wheelchair.
“It might sound cliché, but I feel like I can do just about anything now,” he said. “I can take classes and go any direction I want. When I started, I thought it would just be something I’d do to get to take the next step, but I found a lot of satisfaction in just getting that credential.”
Of 127 graduates surveyed, 90% said they wanted to continue to pursue higher education after graduation; just over half already had begun further studies.
“Without fail, students are saying ‘what’s next? I want to go into business. I want to get into nursing. How do I get started?’” Jennings said she’s heard from instructors.
With the nearly $6 million infusion of funding over the next three years, the program will expand to serve students in Walworth and Kenosha counties, in addition to Racine County.
“It’s a game-changer,” Jennings said of the grant.
The funding also brings SWWDB into the fold. The workforce development board will serve as a liaison between employers and graduates, deploying three workforce navigators to work with individuals to help them find the right career opportunity.
“Instead of just saying, ‘Here’s a number you should call’ if you’re interested in a job opportunity, there’s actually someone who knows who you are, what your interests are and can really work with you on those opportunities … and not let students fall through the cracks,” Jennings said.
Kalies Majors, a 21-year-old Racine resident who in December graduated from the HSED program, recognized her lack of a diploma as an impediment to her career mobility.
“I’ve been a CNA and staying at that level, but I want to elevate,” she said.
Despite the convenience of the class – which she said was accommodating of her schedule as a working mother – Majors faced challenges in reaching the finish line.
In late November, as she was nearing completion of the course, Majors gave birth to her son. She signed into her final virtual class from the hospital delivery room. Two weeks later, she attended the graduation ceremony with her newborn.
“I just knew I had to do it for my son,” she said. “I want a brighter future for my son. I didn’t want him to go through what I went through.”
Majors is now working with a career specialist and preparing to enroll at Gateway to pursue her nursing degree.