For Christopher Tate, the path back to school and work has been smoother than he thought it might be – and it’s helped to have guides along the way. Tate is studying for his Arkansas High School Diploma through GED courses in Southeast Arkansas College’s Adult Education Program.

“At first I thought it was going to be a headache,” said Tate, 34, as he contemplated the prospect of going to school and finding a job. “John helped me fill out the application, and he helped me fill out a resume … John helped me get set up, and in a couple of weeks I was working.”

Tate was referring to John Pennington, a staff member in SEARK’s Adult Education Program who coordinates a program called WAGE. Pennington helps students in various other ways, as well.

WAGE refers to the Arkansas Workforce Alliance for Growth in the Economy program. According to the Arkansas Adult Learning Resource Center’s website, WAGE is “a community-based workforce development program that addresses the need to improve the basic skills of the unemployed and the underemployed.”

Pennington has worked with adults striving to change their lives for a long time, most recently with Covenant Recovery in Pine Bluff, where he worked for more than a year. Before Pennington worked there, he taught in the Little Rock School District for 25 years, about seven of which he spent at an alternative school.

He talks easily with the students, and he’s quick to break out into laughter with them. They also seem at ease talking to him.

“I’ve been a lifetime educator,” said Pennington, in the Adult Education Program’s Pine Bluff center. “God led me to do this. It’s real gratifying to help these (students) and to see them advance.”

The Adult Education Program also has centers in Stuttgart and Rison. The program offers GED preparation and WAGE program instruction, and it employs teachers who help students whose first language is not English.

The road back

Some students, such as Tate, are returning to school as part of their reentry into society after a period of incarceration. But students come back to school for a range of reasons.

Gloria Whitman, director of the Adult Education Program, noted that students increasingly need high school diplomas in order to find solid employment. According to the Arkansas Department of Career Education’s website, about 470,000 Arkansans did not finish high school.

Whitman, who’s served as director SEARK’s Adult Education Program for more than two years, has worked in adult education in the area for 22 years. She said she’s observed more collaboration among various agencies since the passage of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, and she noted the presence of career coaches in the Adult Education Program to help students approach their training more methodically than in the past.

Beyond a diploma

For many students, though, the whole process of returning to school reaches beyond simply earning a degree – something that Whitman also noted. Cynthia Perry, 62, of Pine Bluff, has returned to school for GED instruction and finds the courses striking emotional as well intellectual chords.

“I was unemployed, and I know that you have to have a GED or a high school education to get a good job,” Perry said. “But the main thing is I wanted to better myself, and I wanted to feel good about myself. That’s the main thing: I wanted to feel good about myself.”

Perry’s whole approach to school as an adult, she explained, differs starkly from what it was when she was in high school.

“I was not a good student in high school, and I married very young so I didn’t see the need for having (a diploma),” she said.

Now, she said, her thoughts about learning have changed.

“In high school I didn’t care whether I learned anything or not,” she said. “I went because I had to. Now, I don’t have to – I want to.”

Perry, who works part-time at the CASA Women’s Shelter in Pine Bluff, said she’s spreading word there about the program.

An emphasis on participation

Whitman said that about 440 students are enrolled in the Adult Education Program and that the program serves about 300 other students who have been referred for services.

“Some of the students have been out of school for 10 or 15 years and they come in and think, ‘I’m not going to be able to do it,’” she said. “Some of those students are our better students … They say, ‘I was scared to come in because I didn’t get my high school diploma,’ and then they (become) so proud of themselves.”

Whitman noted that instruction doesn’t generally resemble the educational form students might have encountered in high school years ago. She described extensive peer-oriented and group work, and she said some of the best teaching sometimes arises when students explain concepts to each other.

Perry recalled the way participating, not simply listening, in teacher Sharon Boudreaux’s class helped her to become comfortable.

“After the first week, I knew what to expect and my anxiety went away, and I absolutely loved it,” she said. “You participated, and that was fun to me – and you learn.”

Employment skills through WAGE

Students who have earned a high school diploma or the equivalency are eligible to participate in the WAGE program, where they can earn more specialized work-related certificates.

The program, according to the website, “places the employer at the center of an effort to redefine basic skills” employees will need.

WAGE is part of the Adult Education Division of the Arkansas Department of Career Education.

Pennington said students in the program work on both hard and soft skills, with some certificates delving into particular career skills and others on more general employment strategies.

“We do mock interviews, and we talk about writing resumes,” he said. “We also talk about business etiquette,” he said.

Pennington also stressed the importance of computer skills – particularly to students who have been incarcerated and who have missed out on some of the evolution of computer technology.

“Some of these guys have been down for a long time, and they haven’t even seen a cell phone much less a computer,” he said. “It’s wonderful to watch them.”

Some of the students in the program already have jobs and are seeking to improve their skills, Pennington said.

“I’m going out into the community and out to our business partners and trying to sell this program and show the benefits of it,” he said. “For instance banks, you can bring your tellers here and they can improve their skills.”

And he said people with low-paying jobs can “boost their marketability” through the program.

School seeping into work

Whether a student is working on a WAGE certificate or preparing for GED testing, academic prepping can easily spill into the work. Tate is working in a sanitation-oriented job, and he’s honing his academic skills as he prepares for the GED testing.

“I find myself when I’m at work constantly working on my math and not even knowing it,” he said, noting that he measures chemicals and scrutinizes temperatures on the oven boiling the chemicals.

But Tate stressed smaller, more subtle moments of human connection as particularly important to his life.

“With the program, and with having good people around, it gives me the opportunity to respect the small things I never did,” he said. “Seeing other people who don’t know me help me out and do so much for me, I just look at things in a totally different (way.).”

Tate, who grew up in St. Louis, said he dropped out of school when he was 13 years old. As an adult, he experiences the classroom differently.

“Now, I know what I need and I know what I want, so it’s easy for me to explain to someone teaching me what I lack,” he said. “Being in a small class helps a lot, too. The teacher has the opportunity to give more.”

Tate said that he’s drawn to architecture and landscape design – areas that might lie in his future.

“I just like coming up with the idea, and being able to design,” he said.

Perry, too, harbors plans she aims to pursue after she earns her Arkansas High School Diploma.

“I plan on going straight to SEARK and early childhood education, and I’m going to open a daycare (center),” she said. “I have a 6-year-old great-granddaughter. Her name is Siddaleigh. I’m going to prove to her that it doesn’t matter how old you are – you can always get an education and do what your dreams are.”

People seeking more information may call the Adult Education Program at 870-534-0749.