"As you get ready to cross this stage, I beg each of you: do not let me stand here alone."
The booming oration of keynote speaker and renowned motivational coach Natascha Saunders enveloped the entire auditorium. The graduating class of 2012 sat at attention, donning royal blue caps and gowns, engrossed by her stirring, aggressive and emotional rhetoric.
"Your desire must be greater than your fear. We are built for greatness, and your success starts now," proclaimed Saunders.
The celebration of 98 Rhode Island graduates took place on July 12 at the newly renovated Park Theatre and Performing Arts Center. The grads were but a small portion of the entire class of 369 students who received general equivalency diplomas (GEDs) through Learn to Earn, an initiative designed and run by the Comprehensive Community Action Program, or CCAP.
Following congratulatory speeches by Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, Cranston Mayor Allen Fung’s chief of staff Carlos E. Lopez, and administrator Dr. Philip Less of the Rhode Island Department of Education’s adult education office, student speakers were called up to tell the audience of their year with Learn to Earn.
First to speak was Breana Brown, of Cranston, whose ascendance to the podium was met with boisterous applause from the graduates. She took the microphone, wearing bright red sunglasses and a huge smile, and appeared confident and strong.
Kept out of school due to illness, Brown explained that it would have taken her years to catch up, and decided to get her GED with the help of case managers at CCAP’s Cranston Skills Center.
“The early mornings were hard but worth every minute. We took our second chance and made a home run of it,” she said to the audience of roughly 600.
Then Yanepaulo Andrade went up to speak. During his address, he described his personal appreciation for CCAP.
“I feel like I’ve become a successful and responsible young man, and I’m grateful to the program and their staff. This is the beginning of a brighter future,” Andrade announced to the audience.
Andrade knew he didn’t fit into a normal high school education program, at least from his experience at Pawtucket High School. Feeling unchallenged by the material, he skipped assignments – but aced all of his examinations, he said. Stigmatized by his uncooperative behavior, Andrade was transferred to an alternative-learning program, with students who tended to distract him. After dropping out, he started with Learn to Earn at the Providence Skills Center, where he began developing a love of learning and a passion for architecture.
“At CCAP, everyone was ready to help,” said Andrade after the ceremony in an interview, “If I weren’t there learning, I’d be with people who would be influencing me to do bad things.” Andrade plans to attend the Community College of Rhode Island for two years before transferring to a four-year institution to study architecture, with hopes to bring his skills to the basketball team.
Learn to Earn runs each year thanks to the CCAP skills center staff and the leadership of program coordinator Gary Littlefield. The program also offers other services such as summer employment, job preparedness training, and case-managed counseling to out-of-school and/or out-of-work youth.
Since its initiation in 2005, the Learn to Earn program has helped over 2,300 participants receive their GEDs, attracting around 200 former students each year, ranging between the ages of 18 and 24. Participants work through local skills centers in Warwick, Providence, Cranston, Pawtucket and West Warwick at an availability-based pace, meaning they can complete a certain amount of hours toward a GED based on their ability to meet with a case manager on a daily basis. The program typically takes 70 to 100 hours to complete, said Littlefield. One student, Jessie Rodriguez, spent 321 hours at the Pawtucket Skills Center completing his GED requirements while also tutoring and helping out other participants with their studies.
The Cranston-based community action agency, headed by Executive Director Joanne McGunagle, has designed and implemented dozens of human needs projects that focus on providing employment, income, health care and education to Rhode Islanders seeking greater opportunity.
Formed in 1964 following the signing of the Economic Opportunity Act by President Lyndon Johnson, CCAP began as a Great Society-funded project for the state of Rhode Island in the fight to eliminate poverty. The funding to compensate GED teachers at CCAP comes in the form of R.I. Department of Education grant money, said Chris Mansfield, director of CCAP’s Doric Center.
“[Through Learn to Earn] we try to tie employee training and the GED program, which isn’t based on a classroom model. It’s more one-on-one,” said Mansfield in an interview after the ceremony.
Gary Littlefield joined CCAP after working at Cranston East High School as a case manager, and found that some dropouts couldn’t be stopped. Despite the work he did to try to keep them in school, there were cases where it didn’t matter.
Littlefield, who says around 3,000 kids dropped out of Rhode Island high schools this year, do so not out of laziness but because they don’t see themselves as a fit.
“They don’t see themselves in the school culture. In the Learn to Earn program, they’re going at their own pace,” he said.
Even though Learn to Earn’s budget and grants have seen cuts with the statewide onset of hard economic times, it hasn’t been a tax on Littlefield, who is optimistic that next year’s GED program enrollment will exceed 300 students.
Despite receiving only a third of what they’re normally granted, “We’re still kickin’ butt,” he said. “Even with less money, we will still graduate more kids, and we will not do less work for the state of Rhode Island.”