NEW HAVEN — When Paula Barragan, 24, decided to go back and get her high school diploma, she wasn’t doing it just for herself — she was doing it for her two children.
Barragan, who came to the United States from Mexico at the age of six, didn’t finish high school because she became pregnant with the first of her two daughters. But in November 2015, she took the first step in getting her diploma by going to the New Haven Adult Education and Continuing Learning Center (NHAEC).
Making the decision and going to the center was amazing, Barragan said.
According to the State Department of Education, 1 in 10 adults in the state does not have a high school diploma. In New Haven, that number is 1 in 6.
The center is working hard to reverse these numbers, said Marta Hart, a social worker at NHAEC.
“We help students from many different countries, including Latinos from Latin America, to advance their education. We help them obtain a High School Diploma (HSCDP), General Education Diploma (GED), or National External Diploma (NEDP). And they can also improve students’ level of English (ESOL),” Hart said.
The center also offers citizen preparation classes that help students prepare and pass their naturalization exams.
According to center statistics, in the current 2020 school year, nearly 1,000 students are enrolled. Of these 518 are Latino. Last year, the center had 1,449 enrolled students in its various programs with 740 being Latino.
Juggling school and a family can pose challenges for some students.
Finishing the program became a challenge for Barragan. One of her daughters was born with a medical condition that required hospitalization. And Barragan could not leave her side. In spite of this obstacle, the single mother whose only means of support was her own mother, was determined to finish the program and get her diploma.
“I always talked to the teacher asking her if I could do some homework to make up my classes. They always helped me out. They treated me like family,” Barragan said. “As soon as they see that you are motivated and want to make up your work, they will help you.”
Her motivation never wavered. And in 2018 she graduated and found a job.
“The beauty of our program is that no matter what your problems are, we have staff to help you: transportation, housing, food, or domestic issues. We have partners to help students as a family,” said Michelle Bonora, the center’s principal.
In 2018, the state rolled out 260 adult learning programs across the state This amounted to 350,000 annual hours of instruction by staff with some 50,000 students enrolled in different locations across the state.
Diego Martinez, 30, came from Mexico nearly eight years ago. In Mexico, he didn’t have the opportunity to get his diploma.
“We needed to work to make a living,” Martinez said.
When he found the center, Martinez said he was happy. He wanted to be a role model for his own children and he believed improving his English skills and getting his GED would help.
In 2014, he enrolled in the English program and in 2019 he enrolled in the Spanish GED program.
Martinez admitted that at first, it was not easy, he said.
“I needed some time to get accustomed to it,” Martinez said. “Everybody supports you to make things easier.”
“Getting your diploma or improving your English skills does not happen overnight. It takes commitment and persistence. It’s a journey and takes time,” Bonora said.
Martinez is convinced that “better job opportunities will arise if you invest in your education.”
Overcoming a perceived negative stigma
Bonora believes adults are often afraid to take the first step in getting their diploma because of the negative perception of adult education centers across the country. She encourages everyone to take the first step and go to the center.
“We all hold a core value. We are a family. You’re coming to us with your goals and we are going to help you,” Bonora said.
Added Hart, “Overall the experience is very positive for everyone. They really feel very comfortable, safe, and welcome.”
In an effort to spread the word about the center and de-stigmatize adult learning, the center held a “No Excuse March for Education” last September. Hundreds of people marched from the center to the New Haven Green to spread a clear and loud message.
“There are many people who struggle to read, to communicate, and who do not have access to better jobs because of their education. We can help them to build their skill base,” Bonora said.
The center receives local, state and federal funding and the classes offered by the center are free to New haven residents.
“You don’t need to pay a penny if you live in New Haven,” Hart said.
The cost of enrollment for non-New Haven residents is $100 per semester for day classes and $75 per semester for evening classes.
Barragan said it comes down to the individual.
“It’s on you. Everything is on you. It is your choice. If you want to succeed, you will, “ Barragan said. “It is never too late to improve your education.”
How to register:
Registration is open year-round, with the exception of August. Day and evening classes are available. Classes are offered during the spring semester (January-June), summer (July), and fall (September-December).
People can register at the center. Applicants must be 17 years old and bring ID and proof of address with the student’s name and current address. They must bring one of the following documents: current driver’s license, City of New Haven ID card, passport, or a government ID.
For more information visit http://www.nhaec.org/or call (475) 220-8200.