Adults who want to return to school for their high school diplomas have lost an option in Augusta.
The Richmond County School System has discontinued its free adult evening school program for the first time in at least 18 years because of budget issues.
The evening school was funded by a Crossroads Alternative School Program grant from 1994 to 2000, and when that ran out the school system fronted the money. In fiscal year 2012, that amounted to $292,000, according to Gene Spires, the school system’s controller.
When the state cut the district’s budget by $23 million for the 2011-12 school year, the district tried charging $200 per course to keep the program alive.
The school officials found that students could not afford to pay tuition, so this year they discontinued the program until the district can find an alternative funding source, said Carol Rountree, the director of student services.
“It was really operating in the red,” Rountree said. “We did that as long as we could, but when the budget tightened up we had to look at those programs that were heavily funded by the system and realize we can’t offer them right now.”
Educators at the Tubman Education Center, where the evening school was housed, are still working with about 10 students who were in the program last year and have fewer than three credits to finish.
A part-time teacher used to supervise the evening school, but the 10 students this year are allowed to show up at their leisure and finish their courses alone in a computer lab.
Academic Supervisor Natalie Robinson said it has been difficult to turn new students away from the evening school after she has seen how the program has helped so many people finish their education later in life.
“It was another avenue that people who dropped out of school could use to achieve their dreams,” Robinson said. “It’s very disappointing.”
About 64 students attended the evening school in the 2009-10 school year. When officials began charging tuition in 2011-12, the enrollment dropped to 35.
Rountree said she would like to find a grant or even a private funding source to help restart the program by October. To properly run the evening school the district has to pay for utilities, two part-time teachers, a counselor and a school safety officer.
Robinson said adults hoping to finish their high school education can turn to the GED program at Augusta Technical College.
One of the lost benefits of the evening school, however, is that students earned an actual high school diploma rather than a GED certificate, which is often valued more highly in the professional world, Robinson said.
“When you go in the working world or the military or college, (employers) will sometimes only accept a GED with other things in place, like college credit,” Robinson said, adding that the evening school was the only resource in the area that offered a high school diploma program.
Stephanie Bowie, the executive director for the office of adult education at Augusta Technical College, said the GED program still gives students a boost toward college or better jobs.
The college offers free GED classes at more than eight places across Richmond County, and students can take remediation courses and GED preparation courses through the program.
Students enrolled in the program are also offered free city transportation, she said.
“One of the big misconceptions with GEDs is people pretty much think you can drop out of school, run in and get a GED,” Bowie said. “It’s not that way. It’s not like a little paper mill … but we try to help and make it easy.”
Stephanie Morris, one of the 10 remaining evening school students, said she hopes the district can continue to offer adults the same diploma program.
Morris, 26, left Lucy C. Laney Comprehensive High School during her senior year when working her full-time job to pay bills seemed more important.
She had an apartment and a baby to take care of, and she had to make a decision.
“It was either grow up fast and learn how to pay bills or … actually it wasn’t really a choice,” Morris said.
Last year, however, after getting married and dreaming of bigger things, Morris entered the evening school to get her diploma and move on to college.
With one course left, she said she is excited for what’s ahead and hopeful others can have the same chance.
“I pray this program stays open,” she said. “Everybody’s situation is different, nobody is perfect and everybody deserves a new start.”