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Middle Ground

A new program turns high-school dropouts into college students.

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Middle College aims to get high-school dropouts ages 18 to 24 back on an education track, says Mary Jo Washko, director of the program at J. Sarge. In Virginia, nearly one in 10 adults enter the job market without a high-school diploma or GED, she says. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 150,000 of the 700,000 Virginians without a high-school diploma are between 18 and 24. Middle College hopes to attract such people by enabling them to get their GEDs while learning work skills and earning college credit. If the two-year program succeeds, it could be replicated at all of Virginia’s 23 community colleges.

Gillison-Chew and her classmate Tim Long, 18, don’t say they go to Middle College. They say they go to J. Sargeant Reynolds. And they do. “It’s different from saying the Adult Learning Center,” Gillison-Chew says, contrasting GED programs offered by the city and counties. “It’s a different attitude here, a pride thing.”

Middle College is in Room 663 at the Reynolds downtown campus on Jackson Street just east of the Richmond Coliseum. The 30 students who are enrolled in the free program meet twice a week for four hours of classes. Since the program began in June, two students — Gillison-Chew and Long — have passed the GED. A third is waiting for her results. Meantime, the students have earned some college credits that will transfer to regular transcripts if they pursue associate’s degrees or go on to a four-year college. Gillison-Chew, for example, is earning three credits for Math 120.

Each student must meet eligibility requirements. “This isn’t an open-entry, open-exit program,” Washko says. Students have to pass the Test of Adult Basic Education and be able to perform academically at the 10th-grade level or better. “It’s not that we want to be exclusive,” Washko says, “but we’re looking for students who’ve had some academic success and for one reason or another haven’t been able to continue it under certain circumstances, or until now.”

For Long, 18, it’s meant getting out of 10th grade. Long was in his fourth year as a sophomore at Lee-Davis High School when he finally quit in the spring. “I knew the stuff, I just lacked the motivation,” he says. His mother had heard of Middle College and encouraged Long to apply. Tall and lanky and wearing a Metallica T-shirt, he seems eager to talk about his job prospects. He was inspired recently by a computer specialist and successful entrepreneur brought in by Washko to speak with students. Long says learning about the career confirmed his own desire to become skilled in computer information systems.

Washko is quick to say Middle College does not aim to replace other GED programs, such as the adult educational and vocational centers offered in most localities and paid for by the Virginia Department of Education. Instead, she says, the role of Middle College is to help students who are committed to “create a plan B.” In other words, students should learn to be flexible in how they apply their knowledge and be resourceful when obstacles arise.

“We want to give students the tools to go into the workplace and do the groundwork that creates careers then choose their path, rather than having it chosen for them,” Washko says. “We don’t want this program to be seen as an alternative to finishing high school.”

In addition to the students, Middle College includes two GED instructors, two assistants, and Washko, who teaches the night program herself. “We could double this program with very little effort, just more resources,” she says. Since it began, more than 100 potential students have applied. “We get five to 10 calls a week. There’s a waiting list. And we’re not even advertising.”

This week, Washko and other representatives from the two Middle College programs plan to meet with state legislators to discuss the economic impact of the program — and ask for more money to keep Middle College growing.

Gillison-Chew never thought she’d become an avid student, much less one who’s confident and competitive. In high school she was intimidated and insecure, she says. She had few friends. She worked myriad low-paying jobs. She longed for a career with meaning. Now, she says, it’s just a matter of deciding which career she wants most.

“I’m trying to decide on a major,” she says. In a classroom lined with computers, Gillison-Chew and Long appear as any college students might, sharing insider smiles about her outgoing personality and his reticence. And if they are unlikely friends, Middle College is to blame. “It’s like a homeroom here,” she says, smiling. “Finally, I don’t feel like a fish out of water.” S

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