As the graduates filed into the PS 218 auditorium in the Bronx on Wednesday night, donning bright blue caps and gowns, their friends and family clapped and cheered. Some clenched the strings of balloons emblazoned with “Congratulations Graduates.” Kids watched on, some distracted, some enthralled with the pomp and circumstance. Smiles graced many faces.
This wasn’t your typical graduation ceremony. The 44 graduates are mature adults who actually left school years ago. Some dropped out of school at a young age, others came to New York City as immigrants and are just now completing their high school graduation requirements.
Most jobs require employees to have completed high school, and for those who never did, the General Educational Development (GED) test is their only option as an alternative qualification. In New York City, education for adults wishing to obtain their GED is free and provided by the New York City Department of Education. Each year, approximately 40,000 adults take GED courses with the DOE. In the Bronx, 10,000 people attended classes this year, according to Dr. Nicole Ambrosio, Principal of the Bronx Region 1 Adult Learning Center, a division of the Adult and Continuing Education division of the DOE. On Wednesday, some of those people graduated and received their high school equivalency diplomas.
“The number is increasing all the time,” said Ambrosio.
Programs that assist students in graduating from high school or going back to school are prevalent across the city. Department of Education District 79 schools help younger high school drop-outs who have not yet turned 21 obtain their GED. Individual counseling, such as in the United Way of New York’s GPS program, which MetroFocus profiled on TV in the episode “Education Innovation,” offers additional assistance to ninth graders whose absenteeism could prevent them from graduating in four years. DOE Transfer schools are another option: they are for students who have completed at least a year of high school go back to school and receive their diploma.
The median age of the adults taking courses to obtain their GED is 39. Classes are offered full-time, part-time and on nights and weekends.
Though it’s difficult for adults to go back to school, Abrosio noted, “This breaks the cycle. These are people who understand after working so hard to make it to adulthood, the importance of education.”
MetroFocus spoke with four graduates.
Crystal Jones, 28
When Crystal Jones lost her job last year, she couldn’t find a new one because no one wanted to hire her. The reason? She had not graduated from high school.
But that roadblock is no longer in her way as of Wednesday night, when she finally reached a goal she had long tried to reach.
“I feel great, like so many doors opened up, and I”m ready to open them!” she said as a big smile spread across her face.
And Jones now has even bigger goals. She hopes to go back to school to study radiology.
Jones said she wanted to set an example for her daughter by completing her education and earning her GED. But her daughter actually ended up helping her keep on track: they did homework together.
“I feel complete now,” she said.
Carmelo Cruz, 35
For the past eight months, Carmelo Cruz has been working full-time as a security guard at a retirement home, as well as going to school full-time. His motivation was two-fold: he wanted to show his kids that school was important and he needed the piece of paper in order to go on to college.
Cruz graduated on Wednesday night after passing his GED exams, but it wasn’t the first time he had tried.
“I missed it by 10 points last time,” he said. “It was heartbreaking. But I said, ‘I’ll try again.'”
The second time was a charm.
“My kids are very proud of me, and my mother’s hysterical!” he said.
Cruz has set another goal for himself: to own a business. He’s applying to Bronx Community College where he’s hoping to get a business degree.
“Even though it’s at a later age, I still got a couple good years,” he said. “This is one of the most special moments in my life and I will not stop here.”
Roxanne Genao, 43
Roxanne Genao didn’t make it past the ninth grade. But when her son graduated from high school last year, she was inspired to hit the books.
“I figured it was about time I got myself on paper,” she said, adding, “I was so self conscious.”
Genao stood in the hallway at P.S. 218 in the Bronx and said she felt “amazing.” She now plans to attend college at CUNY to study to be a drug counselor. Without her GED, she said, that wouldn’t be possible.
Her son is impressed.
“He’s so proud of me,” she said. “He told me, ‘You’ve come a long way.'”
Foizal Khan, 33
After moving to the United States from Guyana, Foizal Khan realized he needed his GED before he could move forward in a career he started in his native country: law enforcement.
Khan was a police officer for 12 years in Guyana, but in New York City, college credits are required in order to be eligible for a job in corrections or the NYPD, he said.
Khan’s own graduation was the first ceremony of its kind that he has attended. The day also coincided two other important dates: Khan’s son’s four-month anniversary and his own three-year wedding anniversary.
“It’s a big day for me,” he said. “I’m a little nervous but I’m very excited.”