New program pays dropouts to take GED, skills classes

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

School will be a job, paying $7 an hour, for a handful of Cape Girardeau dropouts this year.

The unprecedented Scholars at Work program, run by MERS/Goodwill, will pay seven to 10 students to attend GED and employability skills classes.

Many dropouts "want to go back, but they're juggling adult responsibilities. Some are trying to handle parenting and providing for themselves and their child. The GED gets pushed back on the list. Yet they have that desire," said Pam Wiliams, coordinator for the program.

Scholars at Work will not only make obtaining a GED attractive but will make it feasible, said DeAnn Briggs, an assistant vice president with MERS/Goodwill.

From 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday, the "employees" will attend classes taught by instructors from the Adult Learning Center, which is operated by the Cape Girardeau School District. Williams will teach the "soft skills" component, such as the importance of arriving on time, dressing appropriately and staying on task.

Some of the skills will be taught through daily expectations. Students will be required to clock in and out and wear a uniform of khaki pants and a polo shirt.

Applications are being accepted, and classes will begin after Labor Day. After the launch in Cape Girardeau, the program will expand to include Bollinger, Perry, Scott and Stoddard counties by the end of the year.

"This is a pilot program and we have not tried it at other MERS/Goodwill locations. As far as I know, this is the first in our area," Williams said.

Briggs said she has a "feeling we're going to have more people than we can shake a stick at. ... There's a lot of kids living out there on their own, trying to make ends meet."

Income, a barrier such as pregnancy or homelessness, and a strong desire to learn will be considered during employee selection. Applicants will take a placement test, fill out paperwork and complete a one-on-one and a panel interview.

The graduation rate has long been a source of concern in Cape Girardeau. In 2008, 71.6 percent of students graduated, compared to a statewide average of 85 percent.

In low-income areas, the allure of earning money immediately can prevent some students from continuing their high school education, Williams said.

But "any kind of job you can get without a GED or high school diploma is very minimal wage, and it really doesn't go anywhere. The GED is the first key to open the door," said Becky Atwood, coordinator of adult education for the Cape Girardeau School District.

She said a GED could lead to promotions at work or even acceptance into a vocational school or college.

Funds for the program come from the Workforce Investment Act, federal money overseen locally by the Workforce Investment Board. MERS/Goodwill was awarded more than $800,000 to operate youth programs, of which Scholars at Work is a component, in a nine-county area.

For more information about the program, call MERS/Goodwill at 573-290-5766.

335-6611, extension 123

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