Coal Creek Adult Education Center
What motivates you to earn your high school equivalency (HSE)? For many, it’s the promise of a better job or the opportunity to go to college. But beyond the short term, did you know that passing the TASC Test Assessing Secondary CompletionTM can have long-lasting benefits over the course of your lifetime and your children’s lifetimes?
Today we’re placing the spotlight on Bryan Holinka, Executive Director of Coal Creek Adult Education Center, as he tells us about the long-term impacts of attaining your HSE and how his center can help you make it a reality.
Can you tell us a little bit about your center, such as the people you serve and the programs you offer?
We began operations in September of 2014 so we’re still really new. Our program was previously hosted by Front Range Community College, and I ran the program there from 2007 to 2014. When the leadership of the college decided that they didn’t want to offer Adult Education anymore, I formed Coal Creek Adult Education Center as a non-profit and recruited the instructors and students from the college. So while we’re a new organization, our program has been around for a long time.
We offer English as a second language (ESL) classes and HSE preparation classes. Our main focus is on offering a high-quality program with professional instructors. We believe this is a field that requires expertise, so our instructional staff are paid employees (rather than volunteers). Having this level of expertise and high-quality programming means that it does cost a little bit to take our classes, but we strive to keep it affordable and within reach of as many people as possible. Taking classes with us is an investment in yourself and an investment in your future.
You were one of the first test centers in the state of Colorado to offer the TASC test—how did that come about?
The TASC test didn’t become available in Colorado until this year (2016) when the state approved the test for use. The only option available previously was the GED® test. With the changes in administration to the GED test, our center was excited to make the transition to the TASC test. So as soon as the TASC test was available, I applied and went through the process to become approved through the state. I then started working with Data Recognition Corporation|CTB, the TASC test vendor, to become approved. I think in our area we’re probably the only game in town for TASC testing, at least for paper/pencil testing.
How would you describe the transition to offering the TASC test?
It went really smoothly. It was mostly on my end where there were any challenges. With being the only administrator for the whole school, it was just a matter of bandwidth and finding the time to do it. As far as getting everything done, the transition was pretty easy. I had a training session with my TASC test representative a few weeks ago and was able to sit down with him for a couple of hours. It’s a pretty simple process, and I appreciate the fact that the TASC test trusts us as a professional organization to do the right thing. I don’t feel like I’m being dictated to about how to administer the test—for example, how to seat people during testing. Overall it was pretty smooth, particularly from the TASC test side of things.
How is the TASC test administered at your test center?
We had everything squared away and ready to administer the TASC test as of November 2016. I’ve started to get a few calls and I’m fully expecting that we’ll start having regular testers every week moving forward. As a newer center our capacity isn’t huge, so there will never be more than a few people taking the test at any given time. We want people to be successful when they come in and we really work hard to make sure they’re as comfortable as possible. I’ve been doing this for many years and I recognize that testing is stressful enough on its own, so we do whatever we can to remove barriers as far as the testing environment and how the students feel when they come in. I have heard stories of people going to other test centers to take a different HSE test and being treated almost like a number—as if they were going to the DMV. When you come to our center to take the TASC test, we know who you are, we say hello when you walk in the door—little things like that to make you comfortable. We want to make sure that if people aren’t successful, it wasn’t because of the testing environment.
We currently offer paper/pencil testing only. Because we’re so new, we don’t yet have the technology to offer online testing. But as things open up and we begin progressing forward, I believe 2017 is going to be the year we really become sustainable and viable and start having some revenue we can invest in. So eventually I think we’ll be able to offer tests online.
How does your center help students prepare for the test?
With our mission of being a high-quality and professionally staffed program, we take an individualized approach to preparing students for the test. We give our instructors a lot of autonomy in how they support students in the classroom. My philosophy over the years has been to hire professionals who know what they’re doing, and then get out of their way. We trust them as the experts—they’ve been doing this for years and years.
Regardless of which high school equivalency test you’re taking, there are basic skills that you need to have and our instructors can identify where you have gaps. For adult students, it’s not like they reached a certain level educationally and just stopped. Oftentimes they kept advancing, but they may have holes in their knowledge that happened along the way. Our instructors give short diagnostic assessments and activities when students come in to figure out what their needs are. For example, they might determine that the reason you’re not advancing with a specific area of math is because you’re struggling with your times tables, which you might not have realized. We work with students to find those gaps and fill them in, and we use the knowledge that they already have to help them pass.
Our program is very much focused on getting the student to pass the test. A lot of places you go to might teach other areas such as soft skills, and while those are important, our primary focus is helping you gain the knowledge required to earn your high school equivalency. Most of our students realize that they’re either stuck in a job and they’re not going to be able to advance, or they’re waiting to go to college, and in either case they need that high school equivalency to move forward.
What are your classes like?
We generally have about 12 students in a class. We provide individualized instruction based on the student’s skill needs, so we might have one person in a class working on their essay, and the person next to them is maybe reviewing fractions, and another person who only needs to pass the science portion so they’re working on science. It’s not a study hall, but it has a similar feel in the sense that everyone is in a different place with their instructional needs. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. As an example, if you know how to use commas properly in your writing, we’re not going to make you sit through a lesson on commas. This is not repeating high school. Our adult students come in with a variety of backgrounds, and we work with the knowledge they already have. We have a lot of success with people passing the test just because of that.
We’re careful to tell students that there isn’t a trick to passing the test. There are test-taking strategies that are helpful on any test, but there is no secret trick. If you don’t know how to do fractions you’re going to struggle with math, so we’ll teach you how to do fractions. And if you didn’t have success in high school because a teacher wanted you to do something a certain way, but you’ve found a different way that works for you, we’ll work with that. We’re going to use the tools that you already have and work with you to enhance those skills.
Sometimes with other centers, depending on their funding stream, they may require students to take tests that don’t necessarily directly apply to passing the high school equivalency test. We understand that you’ve invested a little bit of money into this and we don’t want to waste your time. We have expectations that you come here and work, but at the same time you can expect to have a professional instructor that’s going to help you through it.
What is the importance of affordable pricing for your test takers?
Part of our mission statement is to be both high-quality and affordable. Our belief is that we can do both and that students are willing to put forward a little bit of money to receive high-quality instruction. Our classes are $129 for a seven-week session. While that’s not a tremendous amount of money, I understand that it’s a matter of perspective. We really work hard to strike a balance with quality professional instruction, high expectations of the classes, and high expectations of students, yet within reach financially. Our program is worth the investment because of the high level of quality we can offer. That is our value proposition.
There are also ways to find financial assistance. We have a lot of people who are in Colorado Workforce programs and similar types of programs that help cover the cost of classes. We also get some folks on probation who are in programs that cover their costs. We also have students whose current employers will invest in them and help pay their fees.
What motivates your students to earn their high school equivalency?
We recently did a snapshot survey with students and asked them why they are pursuing their HSE. About two-thirds of students responded that they want to get a better job or a promotion, and the other third responded that they want to go on to college or career training.
We have a lot of adult students who have advanced pretty far in their careers but then find they’ve hit a wall; if they don’t have that diploma they’re not going to go any further. One of my students was a warehouse supervisor who oversaw 20 people and had been managing staff for 10 years. He was really good at his job and his company wanted to promote him to the next level up, but then they saw that he didn’t have the diploma. Students like that are actually pretty easy from our perspective because they’re super motivated. They have skills, and we’re able to use those skills to help them pass.
We also get a fair share of students who are younger and have dropped out of high school within the last five years. There are a variety of reasons why they weren’t successful with school and they still have kind of a bad taste in their mouth. We put them at ease pretty quickly with our approach—we recognize you’re an adult and we’re not repeating high school here. Sometimes a student will ask us if they’ll get kicked out if they miss a class, and we tell them no, you don’t get kicked out, you just missed. You’re the one missing out, you invested in this, and if something happens you’re always welcome back. As I mentioned before we also have some students on probation and they have other challenges that often get in the way of study. But we still have the same philosophy—we’re here to help you. Sometimes I think they might have other things they need to fix in their lives before they’re able to get this done. But at least we’ve planted the seed with them so that when they are ready in the future, they know they can come back.
Do you hear from students about how they’re doing after they leave your program?
We’ve made a concerted effort in the last year to reach out to students so we can start getting some evidence that they’re passing. We surprisingly have quite a bit of success with this outreach. They do call back and they tell us how we specifically helped them with the skills they needed to pass the test. They appreciate the fact that we’re focused on passing the test and not making them sit through things they don’t feel like they need.
What are you most passionate about at your center and the work that you do in Adult Education?
I like that our work really is about helping people. We honestly have a lifelong, intergenerational impact on these students. It’s hard to quantify as something you can put on a piece of funding legislation, but someone who gets their high school equivalency or improves their English skills is better able to participate in their community, and the odds of their children graduating high school jump up exponentially. The statistics for someone ending up in the criminal justice system, or their kids ending up in the criminal justice system, drop significantly when they have their high school equivalency. And the amount of earnings they will have increases as much as a million more dollars over the course of their lifetime. So I think that impact is huge, even if they don’t see some of those benefits immediately.
The short-term impact on a person’s life might be that they get a promotion, and maybe they make $2 or $3 more an hour. They have their HSE and it opens up all kinds of doors for them, and that’s awesome. But I think we make a huge impact on their lives and their children’s lives over the long term. That’s really what we’re passionate about.
Is there anything else we didn’t cover today that you want people to know about your center?
One of the things we do really well is taking the time to answer people’s questions when they call us. When you try to call any kind of higher education institution, it’s hard to get someone who will really talk to you. I would say three-quarters of the phone calls I have in a day are just talking to people who don’t understand a lot about how Adult Education works and how high school equivalency works. They’re not sure what to do. After a five-minute conversation where I’m able to really answer their questions, they feel like they know what’s going on. So I would encourage people to give us a call or email us. Even if you don’t feel ready right now to jump into a class or go take the test, give us a call—we have the expertise and I’m happy to spend time talking to you. Sometimes I’m on the phone with people who are ready to take the test and I can tell them, you don’t need us. Go take it. If you don’t have success, then come on back. I think that’s probably the best thing we do. It fits with our philosophy of providing individualized support—we’ll answer your questions and figure out what you need.
Everyone who works in my program has chosen this field because we care about it and we’re passionate about it and we know what we’re doing. I would put our instructional ideas up against anybody’s, and I think we do better than most. But I’m totally biased of course!