Published June 15, 2016
from Trevor Snyder
Six students are sitting in the room in front of me. They are very different and they are all the same. Not one of them was born in the United States. All of them have faced obstacles and hurdles that might constituted convenient excuses to give up. They grew up speaking different languages and each of them is still learning English. They are also learning other skills many of us take for granted. These are extraordinary individuals. They are exactly the kind of students that Renton Technical College serves with the High School 21+ program. This diploma path isn't a one-size fits all program.
High School 21+ takes the diversity represented in communities around the state into account and provides a new way to earn a high school diploma. Students are assessed to determine educational gaps. Then their advisers create a customized learning plan. Each student has to demonstrate competency in reading, writing, and math in the context of science, history, government, occupational studies, and digital literacy. What's different about High School 21+ from traditional routes is the way the program takes life experiences into account.
A High School 21+ diploma can open doors to better jobs, higher wages, and financial aid eligibility for college. Every student in the program works with an adviser and instructor to create a College and Career Plan so they know what the possibilities are after they complete the diploma program. Renton Technical College's pilot program in the Spring and Summer of 2014 had seven graduates. In the Fall the number climbed to 16 and Winter saw 33 students through the program. The expected number of graduates in the coming Spring quarter is 74. There is clearly a need for this non-traditional route to a high school diploma.
"I really love my class. They each have a different story," said instructor Michele Lesmeister. When polled, every one of her students credited her as key to their success as a group and as individuals.
Hai Nguyen, who came to this country from Vietnam 25-years-ago and is a 1998 graduate of Renton Technical College's machinist program, was struggling to continue his education before enrolling in the High School 21+ program. Because he, like his classmates, is not a native English speaker, he struggled to pass his GED test, which he felt was critical to his ongoing success and prosperity for his family. Working in an environment that required hearing protection and precise concentration didn't give Nguyen much opportunity to practice his English. Nguyen, who works a late shift and averages 3-hours of sleep each evening, recently received his High School 21+ diploma. "It took me two years with Michele," said Nguyen adding that his English has continued to improve the entire time.
Sarahi Tellez, who is from Mexico, took two months to complete the program and receive her degree. She is planning to continue on with her studies at RTC, possibly as a medical assistant student. The pace and curriculum for each student is individually tailored.
There is a clear sense of camaraderie among the students despite their varying backgrounds.
The High School 21+ program is not easy. Salvador Cordero wanted to quit but Lesmeister wouldn't let him. "I'm pushy and I don't take no for an answer," said Lesmeister. The entire cohort laughed and nodded in agreement. "I think it's really good for me," said Cordero. "Every time I looked for a job they asked me for a high school diploma." The High School 21+ program provided a solution to Cordero's dilemma and may well be the answer for many other residents looking for better opportunities.
I asked Lesmeister how the program serves Washington and she said, "This program is a great investment of state tax dollars in education. Students do the learning and we advise, monitor, assist and encourage them with all the tools we have. When students finish their high school diplomas, they immediately have more options for more training, better jobs, and more sustainable incomes. This program helps promote and create stronger communities through empowered students."