It’s been over two years now since we launched the Parker Blog with the intention of focusing primarily on topics related to “healthy kids and healthy learning environments.” What we failed to consider at that time, however, was how many adults also desire a healthy learning environment where they can earn their high school diploma, receive an advanced degree or learn new skills to help them advance in a career. The faculty and students at Marist School in Atlanta (http://www.marist.com/) provide just such an environment at their Centro Hispano Marista (“Centro”) General Education Development (“GED”) Program (http://www.centrohispanomarista.org/). For the students at Centro, a GED certificate represents more than an educational milestone, it is the first important step in achieving the American Dream.
Founded by the Society of Mary or the Marists, a Catholic religious order, Marist School is a college preparatory day school that enrolls 1,085 boys and girls in 7th-12th grades. The Marists have always focused on education and service to the disadvantaged. We recently interviewed two men who have been instrumental in the founding and day-to-day management of Centro, Father Bill Rowland, Executive Director, and Sal Arias, Business Manager and a former Marist parent, to find out more about what makes the program so unique.
At the time of its founding, Centro was the only nonprofit program in Atlanta providing GED preparation programs in Spanish to undocumented immigrants. Marist School developed Centro after the Reverend Ted Keating, S.M., the current Provincial of the Society of Mary, expressed his desire that the Marist religious in Atlanta find ways to promote the education and pastoral training of young adult Hispanics in the Catholic Church. He saw this outreach to the Hispanic community as a direct response to the notable increase in that population within the Catholic Church, both in Atlanta and across the nation.
As a bit of background, the GED Test was developed by the GED Testing Service in the early 1940s at the behest of the United States Armed Forces as a means for returning WWII veterans to earn their high school equivalency certificates. Now in its fourth generation, the GED Testing Service is preparing to roll out a new edition in 2014 that will cover four subjects: literacy, math, science and social studies. The test now encourages college-ready critical thinking and the use of current technology.
For one group of students, the GED test took on an even more important role in June 2012. It was in that month that President Obama announced his new deferred action policy that allows certain undocumented young adults under the age of 30 who were brought to the U.S. as children (“Dreamers” as they are referred to at Centro) to stay in the United States and receive a two-year work visa and a direct path to U.S. citizenship. In addition to several other requirements, Dreamers must have completed or be working toward their high school diploma.
Re-enter Marist. At the time President Obama announced his deferred action policy, Marist’s sponsor parish, Our Lady of the Assumption, had a small Spanish-language GED program that they were in the process of moving over to Marist School. Between the Marist outreach to the Hispanic Community and the new deferral policy, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Marist to expand its GED program to meet the needs of Dreamers in Atlanta. Father Rowland and Mr. Arias quickly set to work establishing and organizing Centro in such a way that it would qualify as an “approved” GED program under the president’s policy.
Per that policy, students must be enrolled in GED programs that are either government-funded or have proven their effectiveness to Homeland Security. As a privately-run program, Centro received a stamp of approval from officials connected to Homeland Security after they reviewed the competency of the program’s faculty, administration experience, and pre-testing/class-placement procedures. Sadly Homeland Security has been forced to shut down several other Spanish-language programs due to fraudulent practices.
Word of Centro’s new program spread quickly throughout Atlanta. In its first year, Centro expected about 40 students … 500 registered. In its second year, the program registered an additional 450 students, with approximately 680 students (60% young working moms) currently attending classes. It is truly a community effort. A combination of 55 volunteer teachers, teach approximately 30 classes each term, with a few retired Marist teachers and staff included in that number. In addition, volunteers from the Marist School community help staff Centro, with another twenty or so Marist students providing tutoring and hospitality.
Centro is unique for several reasons.
- Cost: Marist has removed one of the greatest barriers to most students by offering its GED classes free of charge. By using its own classrooms and a volunteer teaching staff, the cost to Marist for each student over two years comes in at around $75. Compare that to other private GED prep programs that can charge up to $1,000, and you realize what a great value Centro provides its students.
- Language: Although the demand is great, Centro is one of only a handful of reliable programs to offer classes in both English and Spanish. Centro has begun collaborating with other parishes to open additional programs.
- Effectiveness: Centro may have received the stamp of approval from Homeland Security, but it is the success of its students that truly reflects the effectiveness of the program. By May 2013, over 50 students had successfully passed at least one subject, with Father Rowland expecting all of those to receive their GED certificate by December. He expects another 200 students to pass at least one GED test by next May.
The personal success stories coming out of Centro already are numerous. Although three of the program’s graduates have applied to colleges, many more of the students are like Maria, a young mother of three currently enrolled at Centro. Maria will most likely never attend college, but because of Centro, she will be able to receive a valid drivers license, apply for higher-paying jobs, and provide her family with a better life. That sounds an awful lot like the American Dream. Looks like it’s still alive and well in Atlanta thanks in part to all the good people at Marist and Centro.