Taking a different route to diploma

MIDDLEBURY — Jill Ryea, 19, can’t help but smile when she talks about receiving her high school diploma this week. That’s because life without a diploma hasn’t exactly been easy. Since she dropped out of Otter Valley Union High School a year and a half ago, she has applied for jobs at 15 businesses in Brandon, 20 in Rutland and 12 in Middlebury.
“I’ve had about five interviews and still no calls back,” said the Leicester resident. “The economy’s so bad and I’m looking really hard for a job.”
Ryea is optimistic her diploma will help her begin a career, hopefully as a radiology technician, though she unsure how much it will help her find what she calls “small time work.”
Unlike most high school seniors, Ryea will have the opportunity to channel her enthusiasm into not one, but two graduation ceremonies this month.
On Thursday, Ryea and four other students will celebrate having finished the high school completion program through Vermont Adult Learning at a ceremony in the Kirk Alumni Center at Middlebury College.
The high school completion program will also enable Ryea and four others to participate in graduation ceremonies at their local high schools. There they will receive full high school diplomas, something the graduates hope will set them on track for better careers.
The June 10 Vermont Adult Learning ceremony will also honor seven adults in a different program who have earned high school completion diplomas and 27 who have earned GED certificates.
Ann Crocker, the manager of Vermont Adult Learning in Addison County, explained that a large number of adults have recently pursued high school equivalency certificates and participated in other educational programs because they are unemployed.
“They’re feeling pretty desperate to improve their skills with the hope that they’ll become more employable,” she said. “Often they are older workers who have had the same job in a manufacturing company for 20 or 30 years, and all of a sudden they have no work so they’re looking for ways to become employable.”
Vermont Adult Learning is a nonprofit organization that works with the Department of Education’s Learning Works system to provide programs for adult education.
The Addison County branch serves between 300 and 350 local residents a year. It offers courses in computer skills, English language learning, college preparation and high school equivalency diplomas.
In 2006, Vermont Legislative Act 176 added the high school completion program to Vermont Adult Learning’s offerings. The program is designed for students like Ryea who would have likely not received high school diplomas without it.
Ryea explained that the program’s structure — which includes one-on-one sessions with teachers, and the chance to design her own curriculum — kept her motivated.
“We work harder because we’re interested in what we’re studying,” she said.
Unfortunately, the economic downturn may mean that Vermont Adult Learning will have to reduce the amount of individual instruction it is able to offer. Crocker cautioned that the program is “facing severe budget cuts that may lead to dramatic cuts in programming.”
Although Vermont Adult Learning receives a small percentage of its funding from private sources, the majority of its revenue comes from state and federal grants.
Crocker explained that the program’s various sources of private funding have dropped off dramatically, while state and federal sources haven’t made up for the losses, and in some cases, have decreased.
The Addison County branch does benefit from its annual “Big Truck Day,” a family event featuring the county’s largest vehicles. This year’s “Big Truck Day” occurred on Saturday, and Ryea helped plan the event with a student advisory board.
While Ryea is enthusiastic about finishing her coursework at Vermont Adult Learning, she plans to come back to the center — this time to take advantage of its career counseling services.
Dustin Dyer of New Haven, another student who will finish the high school completion program this month, has had more luck than Ryea in finding a job.
Dyer works at Rainbow Acres Landscaping in West Addison and also takes classes at Mount Abraham Union High School. He took advantage of a recent change in policy that enabled him to be the first student to take classes at Vermont Adult Learning and his district high school at the same time.
For Dyer, the structure of Vermont Adult Learning was a much-needed change of pace.
“It’s a lot more peaceful than having 500 kids to deal with everyday,” he said.
Crocker described Vermont Adult Learning’s annual graduation ceremony as the organization’s “biggest event of the year.”
“It’s pretty dramatic to see this group of people of all ages, all of whom have been unsuccessful in one way or another in their education, come together and celebrate their success,” she said.
Every year, the ceremony fills Kirk Alumni Center to standing room only capacity. For four of the past six years, Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Middlebury, has attended the event and students have posed for pictures with the governor and their diplomas.
Two VAL graduates will speak at this year’s ceremony, which will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Kirk Alumni Center; it is free and open to the public.
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected].

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