World of Opportunity Welcomes All Comers

Nicole Humphries picture
SparkAction (at press time, Connect for Kids)
Gin Phillips
July 17, 2006
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Image: Nicole Humphries, the 66th WOO student to pass the GED.

It's not a typical classroom setting.

The pothole-filled road to the World of Opportunity (WOO) winds through the bare yards and housing projects of Gate City, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Birmingham, Ala. The school takes up one room in a cinderblock building largely hidden by a trailer. The walls are plastered with posters—Langston Hughes and American Idol's Ruben Studdard among them—and pages of announcements:

"Congratulations on obtaining your employment as a maintenance worker at Sam's Club!"

"Congratulations on the arrival of your beautiful beloved baby daughter!"

"Congratulations on enrolling at Lawson State!"

The walls speak of a family as much as they speak of a school, and that overlap defines this program for young adults looking for a General Education Diploma, or GED.

Co-Director Steve Orel helped start WOO in 2000 after 522 students—all African American and many recently turned 16—were dismissed from the Birmingham public schools because of "lack of interest." At the time, Orel ran an adult education program affiliated with the city, and some of those hundreds of students began to show up with dismissal slips in hand.

"I say the students started the program," Orel said. "They said, 'I want to make something of my life,' and I'm looking at this piece of paper that says, 'No, you don't want to make something of your life.'"

Orel protested the dismissal of the students, claiming schools were trying to improve their standardized testing scores, and lost his job in the uproar that followed. So he launched World of Opportunity in 2000. Nearly 3,000 students, mostly young adults, have walked through the doors of WOO since then to work toward their GED or, in some cases, to seek out vocational training. So far, 67 students have received their GED.

This particular population has many obstacles to overcome on the way to the GED, and the numbers reflect those obstacles. Some only come once. Others stay for a few days, leave, then try again weeks or months later. The defining feature of the program is also what keeps the success rate low: WOO never turns a student away. There is no contract signed, no Big Brother watching.

A World Away from High School

Students work at their own pace after an assessment from GED instructors. Classes start at 10 a.m., with two-hour blocks running through the afternoon. Three nights a week, there are additional classes from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The students work quietly at long tables, going over study booklets, and when they have questions, they ask.

"It seems like it's one big classroom, but it's actually one-on-one individual time," said Candace Ferguson, WOO's 40th GED graduate. She is now enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "You're on your own pace. You can stay just two hours or you can stay longer."

Learn more about the World of Opportunity, and how you can help.

From drawing up a personalized study plan for each student to carefully following their progress to determine when someone is prepared to pass the GED—the school has a 100 percent success rate among students who take the exam—instructors teach each student differently.

"It's hands-on," said 20-year-old Nicole Humphries, WOO's 65th GED graduate. "In high school, they just give you the work and want you to do it. But Steve takes the time to try to learn a person and tell you where to begin. Every time I needed some help, he was always right there."

No one has ever been asked to leave the program. And WOO has never had a fight.

The Path Here

"One thing I've learned is that some of these individuals are overcoming some horrendous and horrific situations," said Corey Howard, WOO's financial director. "When you and I were brought up, it was education, education, education. But if you don't have food in the refrigerator or lights in the house, education is not necessarily a priority."

Though some left school voluntarily and some have been expelled, most WOO students say they had been pushed out by the prospect of having to repeat grades multiple times.

"They don't want to return school because they're retained," Orel said. "It's a sugar-coated poison—they say you're welcome back in the fall, but you don't want to go back because you'll be the oldest kid in the ninth grade."

Andrew McKnight, assistant professor of educational foundations at the university, laments the attitudes among educators that lead to the "pushing out" of some kids. "Some of it is out of the unsound belief that if we get rid of certain students, we help others. It's a horrible, unnecessary triage. But in the minds of a lot of people actually on the ground, it's necessary. It's a kind of lifeboat mentality."

Candace Ferguson lives with her 16-month-old son Javon, her mother, and her mentally disabled uncle. In her senior year at a Birmingham public high school, administrators told her they had no record of her attending the previous three years and that she would need to start over in 9th grade. So she came to WOO in August 2003.

"I had no idea what a GED was—hadn't heard of a GED. I was like, 'Does that count?'" she said. "My mother and I talked with Steve, and when I started attending, it kept my attention better." She took the GED in May 2004 and found out she passed in June, two weeks after high school graduation.

Nicole Humphries graduated with an occupational diploma from a Birmingham public high school in May 2005. She wanted to go to college, and she was surprised when her counselor explained her occupational diploma would only allow her to attend a junior college.

"I was nervous," said Humphries of her first day at WOO in August 2005. "I didn't know what was the next step for me, what to do, or how to get to where I wanted to go. Steve sat down and explained to me about college and what the GED could do for me. I didn't think that I could pass the GED because I wasn't used to doing that type of work, but anytime I needed him he was there."

McKnight has been interviewing graduates of WOO as part of a research project on public education. "One thing that tends to run as a strain through most of the stories is there is somebody in their background that was supportive, somebody who at some point said that there's another option," he said. "In a strange way I find that discouraging: What about the kids who have no one?"

A Switch Flipped

As much as WOO is a different kind of school, the students are sometimes different students than they were in a traditional setting. They have a chance to start anew.

"No one's criticized on what they did in the past," Howard said. "Here everyone has their own identity. And for a lot of people this is the last stop. If you can't cut it here, I don't know where you're going to cut it."

Students often know that, too, by the time they get here.

"Working at fast food restaurants wasn't cutting it," said LaQwetta Kelly, 20, who's been attending WOO for three months. She wants to be a legal secretary. "I was getting fat—I gained 35 pounds working at fast food. And I have goals in life that I need to achieve."

"It made me feel bad to see my friends walk across the stage, and they're getting their high school diploma, and I'm sitting on the sidelines with nothing," said Tanickka Oliver, 18, who's been at WOO for two weeks. "And I was like, shoot, I need to do something to make myself feel proud too."

More than Academics

Although the bulk of students come for GED preparation, the school also offers computer classes and certified nurse's aide training. Spanish classes and an automotive computer-aided drafting class have been added, and there's a class on job interviewing skills. The school gives every student a library card and helps those aged 18 or older register to vote.

Then there are the more fundamental needs. The school spent more than $1,600 in 2004 on direct assistance to students for food, rent, medical needs and other emergencies.

"There've been plenty of times by me still living at home with my mom that we needed help with the utility bills, and Steve was able to help us," Ferguson said. "Or when the food got low sometimes, and it was a week before pay day, and we had no idea where money was coming from—You name it, they've helped us with it or referred us to someone who could."

When they can, the students give back: when Orel had surgery for cancer in April, five of his caretakers were graduates of the program.

By the Numbers

New faces arrive nearly everyday, with Orel enrolling at least a student or two each day. Instructors work with about 175 different people per month, averaging 40 to 50 per day. The annual cost per pupil is $2,500, about one-third the per-pupil costs of the Birmingham School System. If the 150 students who are not in the program full-time but attend periodically are included, the cost drops to $770 per year, according to research in the Knowledge Foundation's Dollars and Sense: Lessons from Good, Cost-Effective Small Schools.

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WOO's 40th GED graduate, shows off the "campus" to a delegation from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.

WOO receives no state or federal funding, relying solely on private donations and neighborhood association funds. The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham awarded its first grant—$23,000—to WOO in 2003, followed by another $25,000 in 2004, and $40,000 in 2005.

"It's a different kind of model because they have a policy of accepting anybody that comes to the door," said Patti Whitt, senior program officer for the foundation. "Most others that do this have some qualifications or stipulations, but they've intentionally created a very welcoming model."

What the Numbers Don't Show

Woo students seem to revel in the unaccustomed feeling that they are being taken seriously.

"They have confidence in you," Kelly said. "They believe in you and are always saying encouraging words. And just accomplishing this one thing will make you feel like you can do more, like you can accomplish other things."

She has her sights set firmly on that office job as a legal secretary.

"I love to dress like that every day," she said. "I like the environment. I always wanted that." Kelly was recently hired by the mayor's office for an internship program; she's working as a receptionist at the city jail.

After receiving her GED, Nicole Humphries will begin the University of Alabama Birmingham Honors Program in fall 2006. She's thinking of becoming a dermatologist or a nurse.

"I wasn't thinking about the honors program," she said, "but Steve said, 'I think you'd be a good candidate for it. Why don't you give it a try and go down there and talk to them?' And I did. I just went down there and was myself." When asked what she'd tell potential students they could get out of WOO, she didn't hesitate: "Hope. Confidence. To know that they can have a future."

And the focus is on the future. "I always tell them when you get your GED, that's the beginning," Howard said. "There's a whole other world outside of Gate City you need to explore."

Learn more about WOO or to make a donation. Information on preparing for the GED.

Gin Phillips is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama.

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