GEDs

Teacher Tom Culotta works with student Zach Austin, 15, at the Community School, which is an alternative education college preparatory school in Remington. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / September 26, 2012)

Hundreds of Baltimore students and residents have had their high school completions hanging in limbo since the state transferred the General Education Development responsibilities to a new department, according to city and adult education officials.

As a consequence, a program that was designed to fast-track a high school diploma for teens and adults is in some cases preventing them from having access to jobs and college enrollment, officials and students say.

On Thursday, the City Council will hold a hearing to discuss the issues that city GED seekers have faced, such as an increase in wait times, since the service was moved from the state education department to the labor department in 2009. A resolution introduced by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke last month outlined the challenges under the transition, some of which officials attribute to the labor department not being adequately funded.

"I've been worrying about all of this since the transfer occurred," Clarke said. The labor department "got stuck with this without the resources, and that's not fair to them or the hundreds of people in this city who need it."

Amanda McCarty is one of the students who has been affected. She applied to take her GED test in January of last year, but she had already started fall college courses before she received word she was a high school graduate.

"I was anxious and nervous because you think, it could be today or tomorrow," said McCarty, who is attending the Community College of Baltimore County, which allows students to take an entrance exam to begin classes.

"You work your butt off for three years, you get ready — and then you wait," said McCarty, who completed high school at the Community School in Remington, an alternative program where students 15 to 18 years old take intensive courses for at least two years to obtain their high school diploma through the GED program.

"People could turn in an application, and it would be weeks before it was even opened, months before they knew when they were taking the test," said Tom Culotta, who founded the Community School, a one-room, 600-square-foot school that has helped more than 1,000 students obtain their high school diplomas in the past 30 years.

Culotta said the GED program "has remained rather static, as opposed to being innovative, and since the transition has become more difficult for folks to manage. It has improved, but in a city with higher unemployment and poverty, we have a system that needs real attention."

While improvements have been noted in the past year, some city officials worry whether the department will be able to manage a potentially stark uptick of students seeking alternative routes to diplomas.

A new law requiring students to attend school until age 18 takes effect in 2014, and a potential fee increase for test-takers could triple this year to $150.

"There are many immediate concerns, and a hike like that, at least in my district, is going to be a real problem," said Clarke, who chairs the council's education committee and serves on the board of the Community School. "GED is what there is if you don't stay in school, and it's supposed to be a fast-track. We have a city full of people who need this, and with this new law, there will be more. And we need more capacity now and in the future."

Last year, the labor department administered the GED test to 1,089 candidates in Baltimore City, and 417 passed.

In the Thursday hearing planned on the resolution, city, state and adult literacy officials will seek more information on a new program being developed by the state to accommodate the 2014 mandate, and to discuss efforts to mitigate rising costs for testing fees, which could triple from $45 to $150.

The transfer of GED services to the state labor department from the education department was part of a plan to align adult literacy with workforce development.

Officials at the state labor department said that in the first couple of years after the July 2009 transfer, it faced financial barriers that resulted in longer wait times, limited number of test sites, and an inability to meet compensation standards for testing staff.

The department's takeover also coincided with an economic climate that increased the demand for GEDs, said Patricia Tyler, deputy assistant secretary for adult learning. The number of GED diplomas the department has awarded rose from 4,677 in fiscal 2011 to 5,119 in fiscal 2012.

"As unemployment skyrocketed, and people realized they couldn't enter the workforce without a high school diploma, so did our demand," Tyler said. "That's all reversing now, and we're better than ever at this point."

Tyler said that the department's ability to deliver services has significantly improved, and there are several efforts in the pipeline that will enable it to serve city and state residents more efficiently.