In the past, returning to high school for a diploma later in life cost adults only their time.
Now, for the first time in at least 18 years, the Richmond County school system has begun charging tuition to attend adult evening school because of budget problems. Tuition this year costs $200 per course, and most students who return for a diploma are at least five courses away from graduation, said Carol Rountree, the executive director of student services.
“Times are different now,” she said. “It was not our intention to turn anyone away. We really want to help literacy in Richmond County, especially for people who have dropped out and are trying to get a new lease on life and start over. But you have to pay the teachers, the custodian, there’s utilities, public safety.”
From 1994 to 2000, the school system received a Crossroads Alternative School Program grant that fully funded the evening school. When that ran out, the district footed the bill until this year, when it faced a $23 million state funding cut.
Rountree said the tuition collected from now on will go toward paying the salaries of two part-time teachers, a school safety officer, one counselor and one social worker. A little more than $5,000 has been collected so far.
Although it was not the goal, the added cost has already affected enrollment. The evening school has 35 students compared with the 64 enrolled in the 2009-10 school year.
“The economy has made people make some decisions to put things on hold and prioritize, and at this point, if you have a family, you may not be able to pursue your dreams,” Rountree said. “You many have to put that on hold for food and rent.”
When the tuition fee kicked in this year, Crystal Wright said she considered dropping out. She was already struggling supporting her two children with her five-day-a-week job at Burger King before having to pay for her evening school.
“I thought I was gonna have to quit,” said Wright, 27, who is six courses away from completing her high school diploma and has been attending Tubman for four years. “I have two kids, and they’re going to have to come first.”
Wright said she realized her children’s futures depended on her coming up with $200 per course to receive her diploma. So she picked up extra shifts at Burger King and asked her children’s father to chip in.
“I have to miss days (at school) here and there to work extra shifts … but it will help me get a better job,” she said.
Rountree said the school system is working with students to make the fee more doable. She said students are allowed to pay the $200 in installments.
Some students, such as Stephanie Morris, 25, recruited the help of family to get enough money to pay for class.
Morris said she was surprised about the fee when she signed up for the evening school this year but realized it was a price she had to pay to achieve her goals.
She said she wants to continue on to college to study computer science and is making $20 to $30 payments each month toward evening school.
“I just really had to budget,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to go back to school. There was just always something in the way. As you get older, you have bills to pay, you’re taking care of yourself. I have to do this so I can move forward and get my things in order.”
But until financial conditions improve in Richmond County, things most likely won’t change for evening students.
School board President Alex Howard said that although the evening school program is important, there are certain things that have to come first when money is tight.
“Right now, our main priority is keeping teachers’ jobs and reducing class sizes, and that needs to be more important at this point.”