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A Different Kind of Graduation Story

Elizabeth Wynne Johnson
05/12/2006

The GED is widely thought of as the degree for high school dropouts. But in a shifting Northwest economy, more people are finding they need it. Correspondent Elizabeth Wynne Johnson went to a graduation ceremony in North Idaho for this story on the changing face of the GED.

TRANSCRIPT

AMBIENCE: Piano "Climb Every Mountain"

THERE ARE THE USUAL: RED SATIN CAPS AND GOWNS, BOUQUETS OF MYLAR BALLOONS. BUT THIS GRADUATION CEREMONY FEATURES ONE RITUAL YOU WON'T SEE AT MOST HIGH SCHOOL COMMENCEMENTS. THE BIG, MEANINGFUL WORDS COME NOT FROM SOME CELEBRITY SPEAKER, BUT FROM THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES, OPEN-MIKE STYLE.

WOMAN: "Today is my 53rd birthday."

ONE AFTER ANOTHER, GRADUATES STAND UP TO TALK ABOUT TAKING CARE OF UNFINISHED BUSINESS, LIVES THAT DIDN'T QUITE GO AS EXPECTED, AND THE BENEFITS OF TOUGH LOVE.

WOMAN: "If you're young and not knowing what your future holds, be proud of what you've done. You don't understand this accomplishment."
YOUNG MAN: "But here I am now. Seven years late, but just on time. We're all here, getting our diplomas tonight."
YOUNG MAN: "I just wanted to come up here and say thank you to Tonya Johnson from juvenile detention center"
YOUNG WOMAN: "I left HS because I got pregnant. And I put it off for a long time, I'm 26 years old, I have three beautiful daughters and I did this for them and my family [applause]."

STUDENTS GETTING THEIR GENERAL EDUCATION DEVELOPMENT OR GED CERTIFICATE AT NORTH IDAHO COLLEGE THIS YEAR RANGE IN AGE FROM 16 TO 70. SOME WERE HOME-SCHOOLED. A FEW ARE BY-PASSING SOME TIME IN HIGH SCHOOL IN ORDER TO GET TO COLLEGE FASTER. SOME ARE WHAT GED DIRECTOR REX FAIRFIELD TACTFULLY CALLS "NON-TRADITIONAL." THEY ARE THE DROP-OUTS; AND MANY ARE OLDER. THEY LEFT SCHOOL AT A TIME WHEN GOOD JOBS IN THE NORTHWEST HAD VERY DIFFERENT REQUIREMENTS.

FAIRFIELD: " Back in the days when they went through HS, if they worked in the mines or worked in logging, that wasn't necessarily that important and they could go to work making fantastic money in the mines and logging, and so they did that."

BUT NOW THOSE JOBS ARE GOING AWAY. AND MANY ARE FINDING THAT RETIREMENT INCOMES DON'T GO AS FAR THEY USED TO, SO THEY'RE LOOKING FOR NEW JOBS.

FAIRFIELD: " To operate a fork-lift, to even do work at Wal-Mart when you're doing inventory on the hand calculator, you have to have math skills … that's why we're seeing a lot of senior citizens coming in to get the GED."

IT IS NOT AN EASY TEST TO PASS. IN FACT IT'S WRITTEN SO THAT MORE THAN HALF OF GRADUATING HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS WOULD FAIL ON THEIR FIRST ATTEMPT. MOST COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES NOW ACCEPT A GED JUST AS THEY WOULD A HIGH SCHOOL DEGREE. ACCORDING TO FAIRFIELD, THERE'S LITTLE DIFFERENCE IN THE EARNING POTENTIAL OF A GED GRAD AS COMPARED TO ONE WITH A CONVENTIONAL DIPLOMA. THE BIG DIFFERENCE, HE SAYS, IS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NEITHER.

BUT NOT EVERYONE IS HERE TONIGHT BECAUSE OF WHAT THE GED WILL MEAN FOR THEIR CAREER PROSPECTS.

MCQUEEN: "I'm Gloria McQueen of Fernwood, Idaho. I'm 61 years old and just got my GED. I'm so excited."

MCQUEEN SAYS SHE QUIT SCHOOL AT 16 BECAUSE OF ILLNESS.

MCQUEEN: " 'course back then my goal was to be a wife and a mom. And I thought, well I wouldn't need that education. But you do. You really do."

FOR 21 YEARS SHE WAS A SCHOOL JANITOR, A JOB SHE LOVED…

MCQUEEN: "But you don't have to have a diploma to clean dirt. Anybody can clean dirt. That's what really encouraged my daughter. … She says, 'I don't want to do this when I grow up.' I said, then you better get a diploma."

AND MCQUEEN DECIDED SHE WOULD DO THE SAME.

AMBIENCE: Piano, announcer

MCQUEEN DOESN'T HAVE ANY IMMEDIATE PLANS TO GO BACK TO WORK. SO, WAS IT WORTH ALL THE EFFORT FOR THAT PIECE OF PAPER?

MCQUEEN: "Yes. [voice cracking] 'Cause I always thought I was kind of stupid, you know."

ANNOUNCER: "Gloria McQueen"

I'M ELIZABETH WYNNE JOHNSON IN COEUR D'ALENE.

© Copyright 2006, Boise State Radio

09.23.18

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