A jail sentence may not seem like an opportunity, but that’s what it was for high school dropout Daphne Currenton, who spent six months in the Lake County lockup in 2006.
“I had nothing but time on my hands,” said Currenton of Waukegan, who took a battery of five GED tests while incarcerated. “Before jail, I wasn’t too motivated.”
Between 60 and 100 men and women each year earn their high school equivalency diploma in the Lake County Jail, where GED test-takers have a 90 percent success rate, according to Rick Riddle, programs manager. Central to the that success is the College of Lake County, which provides seven in-house courses of instruction, including GED and ESL.
But that could screech to a halt next year when CLC plans to cut off $100,000 in annual instructional funding for jail inmates, ending a 30-year partnership. Other not-for-profit agencies may also lose the ability to offer GED services if they can’t ensure 15 students per class, computers for each student, and if students fail to show measurable progress in GED instruction.
“We’re moving from an enrollment to a performance model,” said Richard Haney, CLC vice president for educational affairs, who added that CLC is cutting ABE funding overall.
While some say dumping struggling learners is a way for CLC to boost performance and maintain funding, Haney lays responsibility for the changes on the Illinois Community College Board, which is now awarding grant money for adult basic education based on how well students score on progress tests. CLC took a hit of $80,000 this year to its usual $1 million in ICCB funding, which makes up about one-third of the ABE department’s budget.
“We know it’s hard when the college has offered courses for many years despite low enrollment,” Haney said. “We’ve provided them (jail officials) with options to convert to a volunteer program and also explained, if they would like to continue, they can pick up instructors at their own cost.”
Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said the jail will seek other funding and volunteers in an attempt to keep offering GED classes and testing to inmates.
“You don’t want them to sit there for six to 10 months and not give them something to do,” said Curran, who like other agency heads, is chafing at the idea that a community college is cutting a community service.
“I recommend CLC to any and all,” Curran said. “It’s the best deal they’ll ever get for education. I would just politely ask that they contribute to the larger community. People in the jail are part of our community. These are Lake County people; there is no greater symbol of what CLC does.”
The college has offered the jail some used computers. Computers are a necessity under the new GED, which goes into effect Jan. 1, and will require computer-based instruction, learning and testing.
CLC currently offers GED instruction at 11 sites around the county. Neal Math and Science Academy in North Chicago, in addition to the jail, has been dropped from the list for next year because it lacks sufficient computers, according to CLC spokesperson Evelyn Schiele.
Both Waukegan Public Library and Mano a Mano Family Resource Center in Round Lake, are already struggling to make up funding and instruction deficits under ABE changes.
The Waukegan library, which has won national awards for services to the city’s large immigrant population, will lose CLC funding, effective in December, for its popular family literacy support services. It is joining forces with the Literacy Volunteers of Lake County for GED instruction and testing but it could lose grant funding if it doesn’t find the money to hire some trained instructors.
Both WPL’s Director of Community Services, Elizabeth Stearns and Mano a Mano Executive Director Carolina Duque, point to a need that has gone unmet even before CLC announced a diminishment of ABE services. While the government offers the GED in Spanish, it offers no help for those who can’t meet the ninth grade literacy requirement to take it.
Mano a Mano has a waiting list of 432 people desperate to obtain a GED, but who need tutoring to pass a placement test.
“We all agree they need GED, but it’s only getting more difficult,” Duque said. “If we don’t provide this opportunity, as a community, and as a country, we all lose.”