Grace Outreach Helps High School Dropouts Get GED Degrees
In Zaukema Blanding’s math class, students are poring over their math homework with intense concentration, scrutinizing conversion tables and double-checking their fractions. A brightly colored “hot seat” in the front of the class, currently unoccupied, will be the prize for the student who aces her homework that day. But this is no ordinary school: there are no bells that signal class times, and the students, all of them girls, are well out of their teens. Many are single parents.
Nestled in the heart of the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, where a staggering 46 percent of families live below the poverty level and only 41 percent of adults has a high school education or higher, the “school” is a nonprofit enterprise known as Grace Outreach, and it’s helping lowincome women earn their high school General Equivalency Diploma (GED) through a free program of instruction in math, reading and writing. “I think of this as a second chance charter school,” explains Executive Director Darlene Jeris, an MBA who previously worked as a special assistant to former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner. “We are the only privately-funded all-women’s GED program in the country.” As such, the program has the flexibility to hire and fire its teachers and to individualize its curriculum (students fall into A, B, or C-level classes depending upon their readiness for the GED exam) so as to get the women through high school and on with their lives as quickly as possible.
“How do you get out of the welfare system? There’s only one way: education. That’s how you get sustainable growth,” explains Grace Outreach President Margaret Grace, who founded the program in 2004 and now boasts over 200 GED graduates to date. But Grace and her colleagues don’t stop with the GED diploma, or the festive graduation ceremony that they hold each June, complete with white caps and gowns, red roses, and a full buffet dinner. The second cornerstone of Grace Outreach’s program is to help each graduate pursue a personal career path that suits her needs and abilities, be it immediate employment, enrollment in a vocational training program, or enrollment in a community or four-year college. Zaukema Blanding’s math students, all A-level women on-track to take their GED exams shortly, talk about their next steps with excitement and a pride borne of grit and determination: “I plan to go to a full-time college and become a police officer,” says 23 year old Kinesha. Her classmates discuss aspirations that run the gamut from construction work, house painting and plastering, nursing, accounting, administrative work, and a commission with the U.S. Navy. “We all share the same goals. We all have children and we all want to do better for them. We’re all pushing for each other to pass,” sums up Kinesha.
Indeed, Jeris cites research indicating that the educational level of the parent is the single most important predictor of a child’s educational level, underscoring that Grace Outreach will have a ripple effect far beyond its graduation rates. “We don’t live in an economy any more where you can support yourself and become financially independent without education,” she asserts. Among its many lessons, Grace Outreach hopes to instill in its graduates the confidence to move ahead with their lives and tap into their potential to learn and make meaningful contributions to society. ”The GED is one of many things they’re going to do. It’s not the end game,” explains Jeris.
Margaret Grace is acutely aware that for every hundred women who graduate, there are hundreds more whose lives could be transformed by Grace Outreach. “One of our students has two cousins, a mother and a daughter who also need our help,” she adds pointedly. With additional financial support, Grace would like to expand into other neighborhoods by opening low overhead centers that would allow more women to graduate from high school: “We don’t want to be owned by the address; all you need are two good teachers to teach a group of 15 or 20 women,” she adds with excitement. It’s clear that Grace and her staff won’t give up till they begin to make a meaningful dent in the needy South Bronx neighborhood they have chosen as their home, and that the women they serve, most of whom are the first in their families to graduate high school, are the unsung heroes in their lives: “So many individuals can be crippled by what lies before them. There are so many hurdles. But these women
don’t stop,” she adds quietly.#