By Becky Jane Newbold
A 30 year career as a paraprofessional in adult education may be coming to an end for Hickman County’s Melody Skelton. And a restructuring of a long standing program has many wondering how the changes will affect those in need of a high school equivalency diploma.
Tennessee offers free classes in every county in Tennessee for the high school equivalency diploma. Three Rivers Adult Education serves Lewis, Perry and Hickman countians who wish take the GED® (General Education Development) test or the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET®). But the three counties will be immersed in a 13 county oversight system starting July 1, 2016. Hickman County Board of Education declined to apply for a new grant through the State of Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“The State is consolidating the adult education program across the state to one per developmental district,” Director of Hickman County Schools Dr. Jerry Nash said in a telephone interview. “This would be a humongous undertaking requiring a large staff and resources to pull off. It seems better suited to a larger system to administrate,” he said in explanation of the decision to refuse to apply for the new grant.
“The immediate question is ‘Do our people have to go to another county. Will the new administrator have a connection with our locals?’ We had grounded the counties into a cohesive unit with a high number of graduates. The development district is so large, we just don’t know how it will be run. I feel like its not going to help, but will hurt.”
According to the Department of Labor website, nearly 700,000 people in Tennessee, ages 18 to 64, do not have their high school credential. An average of 1,604 people in Lewis County ages 18-64 may not have their high school equivalency with nearly 40,000 in the district. South Central Tennessee Development District is comprised of Hickman, Perry, Lewis, Maury, Wayne, Lawrence, Giles, Marshall, Lincoln, Franklin, Bedford, Moore, and Coffee counties.
The reduction from 46 supervisors statewide to eight means 38 administrators will likely lose their jobs not to mention paraprofessionals like Assistant Supervisor Melody Skelton.
“I can’t wrap my head around it. Not because it’s me, but the paraprofessional is the key to the success of the program. They have first contact with the student. They enroll them and retain them. As far as I know, I am losing my job.”
It hasn’t been a job, its been a labor of love,” Skelton said. “I love my students. Traveling, I have met some of the nicest folks. Its been a good ride. I wish it would keep going.”
One entity making a request for proposal for the 2016-17 fiscal year is the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance. Executive Director Jan McKeel explained her organization is excited at the prospects. “South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance has administered adult ed in Maury County for 10 years now. Philosophically, it’s perfect in a career center.” Eight of the 13 counties have career centers. “If we are awarded the contract, we will figure out” where to have classes in the other counties. Adult education classes are already held in Tennessee Career Centers in Hohenwald, Linden and Pulaski, she indicated.
Currently, students obtaining the GED or equivalent certification “count against the local school systems,” Director of Lewis County Schools Benny Pace stated. “We formerly had the opportunity to guide students who wished to dropout toward testing and places like the Tennessee College of Applied Technology without penalty,” he added. “The GED shouldn’t count as a dropout.”
“Every county will continue to have adult education classes,” Director of Communications Chris Cannon with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development wrote in an email. “Those classes may not be held in their current locations, but students in all 95 counties will continue to have access to the program. The purpose of the restructure is to invest in adult learners and provide them with an improved program to obtain their high school equivalency diploma. One way this will happen is by spending less on administrative costs and nearly doubling the number of full time instructors. With a sizable increase in pay, those instructors will be more invested in the success of their students.”
Lewis County Adult Education classes have been taught by Catherine Davis and Cindy Bailey, both part time staff. Shifts in resources from administration to instruction will allow for the number of full time instructors to go from 35 to 62. The full time lead instructor position salary would increase from $28,000 to $40,000. Also hired would be 25 full-time paraprofessionals and 62 part-time paraprofessionals. The program’s administrative overhead for the 2015-16 fiscal year was $3,150,000. Projected administrative costs would be reduced by $2 million with the restructuring.
Proposals are due by April 22, 2016. A decision of who will be named as the state’s eight providers is expected on April 29.