For a lot of parents, high school graduation is a memory – perhaps a distant one, at that. But for 20.7 percent of Washington State adults, that memory doesn’t exist. They never walked with their class or earned their diploma. Now, years have passed and the possibility of returning to school may seem increasingly unlikely, especially with children to raise.
Amber Berntsen was one such parent. As a single mother of three young boys with no childcare options, taking night classes was not a possibility. Then she heard about High School 21+ (HS21+), a South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC) program offered through Yelm Community Schools that enables students who never finished their degrees to earn full Washington State diplomas, with credit granted for applicable work and life experience such as child-rearing.
The key is Y-Care. Free, licensed child care provided through the South Sound YMCA to parents who want to attend classes. For now, the service is unique to the Yelm program, the result of an ongoing partnership between the school district and the Y.
“It made a huge difference,” says Berntsen. “The Y-Care allowed me to take the course and get my diploma. Now I’ll be able to go to college and make a better life for my kids. It’s a wonderful opportunity, especially being a single parent and not having many options.”
The idea for HS21+ in Yelm originated during a parent night. When envoys of Graduate Yelm, a district-wide program aimed at having every student graduate, visited Lackamas Elementary School they talked to the kids about the importance of having a plan for what to do after they’d finished high school.
But the parents were listening, too. “We had people who came forward and said, ‘I haven’t completed my high school diploma. What would be available for me?’” says Lisa Cadero-Smith, assistant superintendent of Yelm Community Schools. Initially, the idea was to create a GED program but the team they contacted at SPSCC had already implemented the HS21+ program in other locations and thought it would be a good fit.
“When we were setting this up, our first question was, what are the barriers?” says Cadero-Smith. “One of the biggest was child care.” The district already worked with the Y through a mock trial and Youth in Government program and Cadero-Smith had an existing relationship with Executive Director of Advancement Sarah Clinton and Director of Licensed Childcare Brenda Banning, so she reached out.
“I asked if they’d be willing to consider providing free Y-Care for students who participate in the program,” she says. “They deserve all the credit for understanding how important that is, going back and looking at their grant funds and every set of resources they have and agreeing to it. We didn’t know how it would work because we’ve never done this before.”
During the first fall quarter in October 2018, three to five children were in Y-Care. In the winter quarter, that number grew to between 8 and 10. By spring, 2019, 30 adults were enrolled in HS21+ along with their children. Veteran SPSCC professor of Adult Basic Education Annamary Fitzgerald believes that Y-Care has been a key to the program’s success, according to Cadero-Smith. “I asked her why it’s working so well here, and she told me the Y-Care is a huge part of it. The program has been wildly successful.”
Yelm Special Education teacher Ann Cross first heard about HS21+ from a former student who hadn’t graduated with her class. “I talked to some people over at the college and thought, ‘This is a great program. I want to be involved,’” she says. When classes started in Yelm, she assisted Fitzgerald during the fall quarter and then took over instruction during the winter.
Students are very appreciative, Cross notes, both of HS21+ and the Y-Care component. “We have a lot of young, single mothers or families that have different work schedules where the husband is working at night,” she says. “It’s really been phenomenal for them, especially for those mothers who didn’t think they’d ever be able to do it.”
Classes are on Monday and Wednesday evenings at Yelm Extension School, located next to the Yelm Community Schools district office downtown. Children are in the same building so parents can drop them off. “Once the kids are in the other room, the parents don’t have to worry about it,” says Cross. “They get very excited about how convenient it is and how quickly they can get their diplomas.”
During quarterly goal-setting sessions, students share their reasons for attending the program. “Nine times out of 10, it’s ‘My kids,’” she says. “They’ll tell us, ‘I want my kids to see that I accomplished this and understand how important it is to get an education.’ It’s great to hear.”
Yelm’s HS21+ program is one of the Y’s many programs supported by contributions by community members who want to ensure all individuals in our community reach their potential. Each year, the South Sound YMCA distributes nearly $1 million in financial aid. This includes offering support to 1 in 3 youth in before and after school child care programs and reduced priced memberships for military families.
To support HS21+ and other programs in our community donate to the Y’s Annual Campaign today. Visit the Y online to learn more about how you can become a member, become a volunteer or donate to support community programs.