Back to school

Billie Rae Charles, right, helps Kevin Thomas, left, at Sheridan College in Johnson County’s Center for College and Career Readiness Program. The program meets every Monday and Wednesday at the college.

It’s the first day of school for Kevin Thomas. And, as for any first-day student, the new beginning brings both trepidation and excitement.

All new school years bring new beginnings, but Thomas is excited because he sees a new ending on the horizon as well: an ending he’s been waiting for since his high school class graduated without him in 2000.

 “I did take the GED test 15 years ago, but I didn’t do well enough to get my equivalency degree,” Thomas said. “It was very challenging then, and things have changed a lot since. I’ve been told that the math has gotten a whole lot harder. That’s discouraging, but I’m also willing to take on a challenge. … I am doing this because my kids want me to be better. My son sees me as someone who is not a quitter. I want to prove to him that I’m not a quitter.”

Thomas returned to high school for the first time in 15 years on Sept. 9 as a student in Sheridan College in Johnson County’s Center for College and Career Readiness program. For the past three years, the center has been giving students like Thomas the opportunity to achieve a lifelong dream and earn a high school diploma.

“No matter what your reason for dropping out of high school, you experience an unspoken feeling that comes from both outside and inside you,” said Billie Rae Charles, the instructor at the Center for College and Career Readiness. “It’s that feeling that you failed. But for so many students, it was just totally out of their hands. They quit because circumstances forced them to. But at this program, we believe that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.”

Instruction at the Center for College and Career Readiness includes a minimum requirement of 50 hours of class time that covers the five subjects tested on the GED: reading, writing, science, math and social studies. Students are pretested to find areas where they struggle and stay in the program until they are fully ready to take the test, Charles said.

“The program is flexible to the needs of students,” Charles said. “Some students can graduate our program in a semester. Some students take two years or more. We do our best to work with the students and meet them where they’re at.”

The students in Charles’ class have their own individual goals and dreams that can only be reached with a high school equivalency degree, Charles said. Thomas wants to study nursing in college. His classmate Tiffany Johnson wants to become an addiction therapist. Tyler Jones, who graduated the program this past summer, is double majoring in culinary arts and business at SCJC.

“This high school equivalency degree really makes the difference when it comes to getting into college and in so many areas of employment,” Charles said. “Without it, you might get an entry-level job, but that’s it. This degree really is an open door to whatever a student’s next step may be.”

If Thomas has a long road of studying ahead of him, he can take comfort in the recent success stories of students like Kristi McGee, Charles said. McGee earned her high school equivalency degree earlier this summer.

For McGee, the journey to her degree was a long one that started when her high school class graduated without her in 2008.

“I only completed my freshman year, so there was a lot I did not learn in high school,” McGee said. “There was a lot I had to learn and relearn.”

McGee said she appreciated the program’s flexible schedule that still allowed her to be a mother to her children while working toward her goal.

“When I started, I just wanted to get this done really fast and I think I had some unrealistic goals,” McGee said. “I had to take a step back and tell myself that I couldn’t do that. There was just so much I didn’t learn in high school, and I was a busy mom with three kids. You just have to do it on your own time, and you can’t compare yourself to anyone else. It’s OK to not be the fastest or the best. You just have to take the time to do what is best for you.”

Throughout her two years of schooling, Charles was always there to lend a helping hand, McGee said.

“Billie Rae would Facetime with me late at night to help me with math,” McGee said. “If you miss a couple classes, she will text you and make sure you’re all right. She is someone who does not give up on you.”

For her part, Charles said, the class is just as rewarding for her as for her students.

“I feel grateful to be doing something that I love,” Charles said. “There is nothing like seeing these students walk across that stage and get their diplomas. It’s a tearjerker every year.”

Now in her second semester of nursing school, McGee said that she continues to treasure the memory of earning her diploma.

“When I graduated and all my kids were there cheering me on, there was nothing like it,” McGee said.

Thomas is looking forward to that day. But in the meantime, he is getting ready to buckle down and head back to school.

“I’m glad there are programs like this for people like me who want to show the world that they are somebody,” Thomas said. “And I’m glad there are people who care enough to help us do that. … To anybody out there, I would say that I think you should just do it. I know life is hard, but if you’re willing to take the time to make yourself better, there are many people willing to help along the way.”

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