GRAND RAPIDS — Noble Johnson serves as an example of the success of Heartside Ministry’s GED program.
After losing both of his parents, Johnson, 21, came to Grand Rapids from Wisconsin to be near family. Prior to the move, he had been working as a paralegal for his father. Because he did not earn his high school diploma, Johnson knew he would need to further his education to get a good-paying job.
In March, Johnson enrolled in the GED program at Heartside Ministry and now works full-time for the City of Grand Rapids in its 311 department, which fields telephone calls for all city departments.
“I’ve always placed a heavy importance on education,” Johnson said. “I have plenty of lawyers and historians in my family and there was a real reverence for education in my household.”
He plans to enroll in Grand Rapids Community College next semester to study technology or business.
The GED program has an 89-percent graduation rate — 9 percent higher than the state average — and is on track this year to surpass the number of students it graduated in 2017. Many of the GED program graduates move directly into an 18-week program offered at GRCC’s Leslie E. Tassell M-TEC, which offers manufacturing training, and receive full-time job offers upon completion, said Gregory Randall, executive director for Heartside.
The majority of the GED students are in their early to mid 20s, have been out of school for more than eight years, and have multiple reasons for not getting a high school diploma. Randall said people who are really motivated can complete the GED program in three months, while others may take a couple of years to finish, especially if they are working.
In 2017, the program graduated 52 students and this year has already seen 46 individuals earn their GEDs.
“We’re tracking ahead of last year’s numbers and we still have four months to go,” Randall said. “I think we’re going to end up better than last year.”
The GED program, the only one of its kind in the area, is free and individuals are referred by other social service agencies in the community, such as Degage, Mel Trotter, and Guiding Light.
“To a large extent, it has to be free because our clientele doesn’t have the resources to pay for it,” Randall said.
At any given time, 20 students could be working with five volunteer tutors, most of whom are former educators.
Heartside received a $25,000 grant this year for its GED program from HarperCollins Christian Publishing, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn. The Grand Rapids nonprofit receives no government funding and relies on grants from foundations and donations from individuals to fund its $600,000 annual budget.
Randall said about 25 percent of the funding comes from foundations, with the remainder from individual donors.
Casey Francis Harrell, a spokesperson for HarperCollins, said her organization supports the GED program because it promotes literacy through teaching and encourages program participants to finish what they started, while also encouraging them to seek out their goals and reach them.
“Heartside tells their people they are worthy of their dreams and that these dreams are attainable,” Harrell said. “Encouraging ‘know how’ builds self-confidence and teaches that regardless of your age or stage in life, regardless of what your past experiences have led you to believe, your life and future is important and it’s worth investing in. A GED provides options. It can lead to the ‘what’s next?’ in a person’s life.”
FOCUSING ON WHAT’S NEXT
While Randall believes the education component is critical, he also places a lot of emphasis on what happens next.
“We encourage our graduates to take a hard look at what’s going on at GRCC with its 18-week M-TEC program,” he said. “You could graduate on Friday and we’ll give you a tour the following Monday and set you up with a counselor. This is to keep the momentum going.”
John VanElst, program manager in GRCC’s Workforce Training Department, said career coaches work with students who are close to their GED completion to get them thinking about their next steps.
“That’s why we get into this before they’re done, to make sure when they’re close to getting done, there’s a little excitement about the next opportunity or next step,” VanElst said. “We know there’s a lot more out there that can be done. We want to see if they’re ready for that next step, which is education and training.”
While attending GRCC, students work with job developers to make sure they are prepared to interview and have resumes to distribute. VanElst said employers also volunteer to conduct mock interviews.
The average job placement rate for students in these condensed programs is 90 percent, but VanElst said there is a 98 percent placement for high-demand jobs such as medical assistants.
While tuition affordability is an issue for many Heartside GED graduates, a number of GRCC’s job training programs meet financial aid eligibility requirements even though they are relatively short in duration, VanElst said. These programs are focused on areas such as manufacturing, construction, electrical, automotive, and computer tech support.
“In my perfect world, I would love to get a scholarship program going for this,” Randall said.
While that pool of money does not yet exist for Heartside, GRCC received a $1 million grant in February from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that will benefit Heartside participants.
The three-year grant supports GRCC’s “Foundations to the Future” project, which targets Grand Rapids residents who have low incomes, are single parents, have no or low employment, and who are ready to make changes to get high-quality jobs. Challenges such as gender and racial barriers and criminal backgrounds also are considered. Participants in the program undergo skill assessments and receive training and coaching to move them into careers.
RECEIVING BUY IN
VanElst said the grant enables GRCC to work with the city of Grand Rapids and Kent County on a “Public Works Academy,” which gives residents in-demand skills for emerging municipal projects, and helps these organizations find the next generation of individuals to support West Michigan’s infrastructure. The academy, which targets careers in planning, parks and recreation, wastewater treatment, green infrastructure, traffic control, heavy equipment, road work and automotive repair, will include apprenticeships and skilled trades training.
“We just did the first one and had six residents who went through the training and are now working for the city of Grand Rapids,” VanElst said. “We had people coming through the Heartside program and residents of the city. We know the talent is there. The focus was on people from the city, but we do have students from Kent County.”
The Public Works Academy takes five to eight weeks to complete. Students meet two days a week and are asked to pay $25 to participate, but VanElst said they aren’t turned away if they can’t pay. He said another Academy is scheduled for January.
To make the Academy sustainable after the grant is exhausted, VanElst said he will be looking to employers and residents to contribute financially.
“As we go further, we hope to have employers buy in,” he said. “Employers are getting more creative as they look for ways to get and retain new talent.”
Were it not for these programs, Johnson said he’d likely still be looking for a way to earn his high school diploma.
“That first year, they may not make lot of money,” Randall said. “After you’ve proven yourself, that’s when salaries can jump for folks. We’re trying to help with that. It’s kind of one step along the way.”
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