This past February, Timothy Oliver ran out to do an errand for his wife Gerry and found himself near the Adult Learning Center on Kossuth Street.
“I thought, ‘I’m this close. Let me just see,’” said Oliver, 49, who received his diploma in May from Bridgeport Adult Education.
Oliver had been thinking of dropping in at the Adult Learning Center for some time. He had enrolled in adult education classes before, in 1993, 2000 and 2007, but he just couldn’t seem to get his diploma.
“Whenever I planned to go to school, a door opened for a job,” he said.
So when Oliver, recently laid off, was in the neighborhood of the facility, he thought he’d stop in to complete the paperwork and sign himself up for classes. What he didn’t anticipate was that classes had been in session for a week, and in order to join the program he would have to head right upstairs and begin taking his first English class immediately.
When he got home, his wife was waiting anxiously for him.
“She said, ‘Where were you?’” said Oliver. “I said, ‘I was in class.’”
This May, Oliver was the student speaker for a class of 231 adult education students, the largest class ever graduated by Bridgeport Adult Education.
“It’s a huge spike over the past several years,” said John Fabrizi, director of the school.
In 2007, 118 adults graduated from Bridgeport’s credit diploma program. Since then, the number in the graduating class has almost doubled.
Bridgeport Adult Education offers four programs for adults who want to return to school: the Adult High School Credit Diploma program, preparation for the General Educational Development and the Adult Basic Education tests, English as a Second Language, and Citizenship classes.
“All of the students who attend adult education are Bridgeport residents who left high school previously,” said Fabrizi. Student ages ranged from 17 to close to 60 this year, he added.
The increase in adult education graduation rates is not unique to Bridgeport, according to Ajit Gopalakrishnan and Valerie Marino, education consultants for the Connecticut Department of Education.
“I think it would be fair to say that over the past five years, we’ve seen a steady increase,” said Gopalakrishnan.
Since 2005-06, the state has seen a 4 percent increase in enrollment in adult education programs, and a 10 percent increase in diploma attainment; in 2006, 3,759 diplomas were awarded across the state’s four adult education programs. In 2010, the last year for which records are available, 4,063 diplomas were awarded by three adult education programs.
Marino has a theory as to why the graduation rate has gone up more than enrollment: the economy.
“They’re sticking with it,” she said of the adult education students. “People tend to step in and out of the program as life happens.” Marino speculates that there haven’t been as many jobs available to take students away from adult education programs.
The job shortage was a factor in Oliver’s decision to go back to school. Oliver began working as a 15-year-old in New York, and was in the work force for almost 40 years without a high school diploma. To help support his wife and two daughters, he worked security, maintenance, mailing room and custodial jobs in Connecticut and New York, never needing a diploma; he was always able to impress his employers with the depth and breadth of his experience. In the ’90s, however, things started to change.
“I noticed a change in the job descriptions,” he said. “They wanted that high school diploma.”
That really came home to Oliver in 2009, when he lost a job offer because he didn’t have a diploma.
“They needed at GED,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘I missed an opportunity.’”
Oliver, a man used to working 12-hour days, said he never worked as hard as he did this spring, when he hit the books.
“I was up until two, three in the morning,” he said. “But I was determined.”
Now that he has his diploma, Oliver is looking for a job once more, although he’s not done with his schooling. He plans to attend college, and wants to enroll in the Lincoln Culinary Institute one day.
Asked what got him through the program, he has a simple answer: “It was my determination and focus.”
Despite the dire financial straits and state takeover faced by the Bridgeport public schools, Fabrizi is not concerned about cuts to his program. Bridgeport Adult Education is heavily supported by state funds. For example, $2.2 million is budgeted for adult education in the 2011-12 fiscal year. According to Fabrizi, the local board is slated to pay $800,000, while the state plans to pay $1.4 million.
“I think people are starting to realize that second chance has to be given,” said Fabrizi. “This is the last stop for a lot of people.”