Future of GED program in question
Port Aransas is home to a highly rated school system and a university facility full of people with master's degrees and doctorates. This town also is flush with relatively prosperous residents, which generally translates to lots of folks with good educations.
But there's another side to Port Aransas.
Dozens of people around town struggle through life without high school diplomas or really even being able to read and write, according to Toni Somers, who runs a GED (General Educational Development) program that's housed at Community Presbyterian Church.
As evidence, Somers points to the fact that 40 to 45 people have passed through her classroom doors since she founded the free GED program two years ago.
Of course, the problem of undereducated adults is not an issue limited to Port Aransas.
According to a 2005 study by the U.S. Department of Education, 30 million adults - 14 percent of the adult population in the U.S. - are "below basic literacy" in reading, writing, comprehension and math skills.
Mike Hall can vouch for that. Hall, co-owner and managing partner of the Family Center IGA food store, says at least 10 percent of his job applicants cannot fill out applications properly because they have so much trouble with writing skills. The trouble is so bad that the applications end up being useless as turned in, or applicants need extensive help filling out the forms.
Even blue-collar employees need the equivalent of a high school education, Hall said.
"You'd think you wouldn't need an education to do something here like stocking shelves, but you do," Hall said. "You have to be able to match the product label to the label on the shelf. Even janitorial work has gotten complicated. … It's not just a mop and a bucket any more. You have to know how to operate floor polishers, and you have to be able to read how to mix ingredients."
Somers' GED program has been a boon, but the future of GED instruction in Port Aransas lies in question.
Somers is 72 years old, and she has multiple sclerosis, which saps her energy. She cannot predict what the future holds for her. As little as one year from now, she said, her health may not permit her to continue operating the program - something she does on a volunteer basis, with the assistance of two volunteers - Linda Trepanier and Alice Marks.
Whether anyone will be available to replace Somers is unknown. Moreover, Somers said simply finding a replacement won't be enough.
Port Aransas needs a whole new program, Somers said. This town needs a professionally run program with longer hours for the many residents whose work schedules make it hard to go to GED classes with the limited hours currently available in the existing program, Somers said.
Port Aransans could go to Aransas Pass for GED classes. Aransas Pass is one of several area towns where the Beeville Adult Learning Center operates satellite GED classes.
But Somers said that's not a viable option for many folks. People who need GEDs likely don't have access to reliable transportation or much gas money. And they often can't find the time to get away from work and family responsibilities in Port Aransas long enough to go to Aransas Pass, especially when unpredictable ferry lines are involved.
Somers said she started the GED program in Port Aransas partly because she had a gut feeling there were people who needed it here in a town where so many work in food service and as maids at motels.
Somers was interested also because she enjoyed working as a professional GED teacher at Heart of the Ozarks Technical Community College when she lived in Springfield, Mo., during the 1990s.
Over the course of her adult life, Somers spent many years working as a music teacher and as a professional photographer. But, to this day, that period she taught the GED classes in Springfield stands out as the happiest six years of her professional life, she said.
"It was the feeling that I changed something," Somers said. "There was something really rewarding about walking into a local department store and seeing someone you taught, and seeing their excitement. They now had a white-collar job. It could have been seven dollars an hour, but they were so excited that they weren't having to do blue-collar work."
Somers established the free GED program in Port Aransas in fall 2005. She conducted the program by herself for the first few months and later was joined by two assistants.
Community Presbyterian Church provides space for the classes at the church's Joint Effort Leisure Ministry center. Classes meet 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Thursday. While the program trains students, it does not administer GED tests. That is done at the Del Mar College Testing Center in Corpus Christi.
The Presbyterian Women group has paid the $75 testing fee for each Port Aransas student.
Forty to 45 different students have appeared at one time or another in the Port Aransas GED classes, Somers said. At least three students have taken and passed the GED test, she said. Two others have passed four-fifths of the test, she said. Five more, she said, are close to taking the test.
The rest of the students have widely varying statuses. Some, Somers said, might not come to class for months at a time due to family circumstances or job responsibilities. Some may not show up because they have chosen to do their studying at home rather than in class. Some have moved away and possibly have joined a GED program in another city.
Some students disappear right about the time they've gone as far through the course as is necessary, and it's time to take the final test, to get their GED.
"That next step is scary," Somers said. "They no longer have an excuse for not achieving what they want, or being, by society's definition, a success."
Somers feels certain there are more Port Aransans who would like to take GED classes but have a hard time getting away from work to attend classes. She said she wants to appeal to employers to encourage their employees to take GED classes if they need them and to give them the time off they need to go through the program.
Students in the program have ranged in age from 18 to about 80 years old. (The program doesn't accept students under 18.) Most have been between 20 and 30 years of age.
Some students dropped out of high school because of pregnancy. Others left school because they grew up in families that put high priorities on employment and not so much on education, Somers said. Some left school due to boredom and rebelliousness.
Many students come to the program saying they want a GED because they want a better job. "But, I think when you scratch the surface, they want it for personal affirmation," Somers said.
Some say they took the course because they want their children to know they have a diploma.
Somers said she passionately wants to see some sort of GED program continue in Port Aransas because she wants to see people raise themselves up.
"They ought to be proud of what they do and not feel they're on the absolute bottom of the community," Somers said.
Perhaps part of the reason Somers feels passionately about education is because her own father couldn't read or write.
Born in 1889, Somers' father, Saverio "Sam" Tamburro, was orphaned at the age of 3 and never obtained a formal education. He worked as a farmhand in Canada and as a laborer in auto plants in Detroit before his death about 40 years ago.
"He so much didn't want anyone to know he wasn't educated," Somers said. "I remember, really, watching him when I was a little kid. It seemed to hurt him so much, not being able to read and write."
But those who can't read or write aren't the only ones who are being hurt. Do you feel some pain? Perhaps you should - we'll tell you why, next week.