Sparta — Neither Tony Tran, Jr. nor David Calcote had given a speech before, but both were anxious to share their stories at the Sparta Adult Education graduation ceremony, which was held May 26.
Both of these young men powered through the program in less than a year — each for their own personal reasons — to obtain a high school diploma.
When David moved to Michigan from Mississippi in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, he knew he would need high school credentials to achieve his goal of becoming a pilot. He completely focused on graduating and is now enrolled in the MRI tech program at Grand Rapids Community College.
Tony, like David, was also extremely motivated to get it done.
“He was the picture of perseverance,” said Adult Education Director Heather Holland of Tony. He attended in-person classes at the Comstock Park York Creek Apartments complex, taking a 30-minute bus ride to get to school early and staying until the center closed every day.
As Tony finished his coursework, he also got assistance in making career plans, preparing a resume and applying to GRCC, where he’s currently enrolled.
While it is possible for some students to finish quickly, others are enrolled sometimes for five or six years, said Holland.
“Some, like Tony and David, come in with a passion to just get it done, but it is harder for others to do that,” she said. “Some need to work full time, have children, or are going through hard times.
“Our population is so diverse and we had so many graduates this year, it is impossible to say which ones stand out,” Holland added. “We have single parents, recent high school drop-outs, refugees and some who have experienced illness or great loss.”
The What and Where
The Adult Education program offers students the opportunity to earn either a GED or a high school diploma. It also offers career coaching and classes in English as a second language.
The program offers in-person classes at six locations: Sparta High School, Alpha Family Center of Cedar Springs, York Creek Community Center in Comstock Park, Alpha Family Center of Lowell, Steepletown Neighborhood Services in Grand Rapids and Streams of Hope in Kentwood.
There are some additional sites that have not reopened since the pandemic began, but may at some point in the next year, Holland said.
SAE services much of Kent County, but also accepts students from other areas.
”We get many students from further north, due to limited adult education options in those surrounding counties,” said Holland. “You could say we serve the school districts in which we have satellite locations, but in reality, our population is more broad than that due to the limited number of adult education programs.”
There are two other adult education programs in Kent County: Rockford Adult Education, which serves primarily Rockford, and Kent ISD, which serves Grand Rapids, Wyoming and much of the metro Grand Rapids area, according to Holland.
While digital options were available for high school diploma classes, the pandemic forced SAE to make all programming available online this year.
“We developed processes for doing everything completely virtual, (like) remote enrollments and assessments, which allows us to hypothetically serve anyone living in Michigan needing our services,” said Holland.
Another plus that came with the difficult year was the chance to begin some home outreach.
“I had wanted to try it for a couple of years, but didn’t know how it would work. The pandemic forced us to figure that out,” said Holland. “It has been one change that I think kept us growing faster than any other program in the region through the last year,” she said.
A look at some of Sparta’s adult education grads who celebrated this May
Celia Dannenberg absolutely loved being able to work mostly online. “I did it for my kids and a better job opportunity.”
Netesia Vazquez knew exactly why she needed a high school diploma: “I want to go to college in the fall. I plan to become a surgeon.”
Tony Tran, Jr. was one of the commencement speakers. “There were lots of reasons that I couldn’t do regular high school, but once I started this program, I was committed.” He began his days early in the morning and stayed late in order to finish in six months. He is now attending Grand Rapids Community College and plans to transfer to Western Michigan University to pursue a career in psychology.
Latasha VanDyke has several reasons why she wanted to graduate: “I have four babies, and I wanted to further my education and show them that if I can do it, they can do it.”
Erika McGuirl didn’t finish high school with her classmates in 2018, but did pay attention to the adult education flyers around school for when she was ready to take that step. “Classes were wonderful and online worked especially well for me, so I could continue to work.”
Kelsay McCune earned all of her credits in time for graduation, but has a busy road ahead. She attended her graduation ceremony with her 20-month-old daughter, Lyanna, and is expecting twin girls to be born any day now.
Program Growth in Sparta
Five years ago, adult education programming in Sparta had nearly disappeared and people were ready to hand it over to Kent ISD. That’s when Holland, who had been newly appointed as director, and another local director advocated for the district to give Holland a chance to improve things before making a cut.
Holland took a few risks, opening new sites and putting new policies in place, which have paid off. At the time, the program enrolled about 200 students per year and in 2016, approximately 20 students graduated.
In contrast, this academic year the program has seen 165 graduates already, with others nearing completion. In 2020, the program enrolled 570 students; this year there are 940 so far, with enrollment continuing through June, said Holland.