Ruth Hill Elementary School has been ground zero for many innovative educational programs for its students, and it is now reaching into the community to help older students succeed.
The school has been home to a free West Georgia Technical College GED class since March 2017, when Stephanie Fregoso began helping students work toward finishing their interrupted high school educations.
Fregoso’s current class consists of eight students, a diverse mix of black, white and Hispanic men and women ranging in age from 17 to 57.
Ruth Hill Principal Aaron Corley said the partnership with West Georgia Tech allows the school and to invest in the education and betterment of the community it serves, and demonstrates that it is a place of learning and success for both children and adults.
“Learning does not have to stop after school is over or be confined to the school day,” he said. “The program allows our school to be a true community school, serving, helping, and investing in everyone. “
The reasons GED students have for leaving traditional school vary as widely as their backgrounds, but all have ended up at the colorful kid-sized tables in Ruth Hill’s counseling center, steadily working their way through lesson plans three nights a week.
Until a few weeks ago, it was a class of nine. But then Katelyn O’Grady passed all four parts of the exam and became the first of Fregoso’s students to start and complete the GED class at Ruth Hill.
“Katelyn started on Oct. 8 and graduated within three months,” Fregoso said. “She came to class very regularly and was able to do homework online, which helped her speed through it.”
While Fregoso said O’Grady was extremely motivated and worked hard, O’Grady said it was a new attitude toward academics that helped her reach her goal.
“I owe a lot of my outlook on school to Ms. Stephanie,” said O’Grady, 19. “She’s the only teacher I ever had that would not only answer a question I had but, if I didn’t understand it the first time, she would spend time explaining it in terms I could understand. She is a very good teacher. She always told me that it was a for sure thing I was going to graduate, and it was really important for me to hear that.”
O’Grady is a student who said she was lost in a sea of other students at the school she attended in Gwinnett County, where she began falling behind and never caught up. As her self-confidence tanked, attendance became an issue as well.
“I didn’t get the individual help I needed, so I wasn’t getting anything done,” she said. “Everything was just going downhill more. It was really, really hard on me because I felt like I wasn’t smart and I wasn’t going to do well.”
Homeschooling didn’t work out either, so O’Grady began checking into local GED classes. But she said the process stalled because it was so complicated – until she moved with her family to Newnan last fall, when she discovered West Georgia Tech’s adult education program and learned that classes were offered at Ruth Hill, which happened to be the neighborhood school her younger brother attends.
“I knew I needed a smaller class, and when I found out there was one at Ruth Hill, I felt like it was meant to be,” she said.
The small class size is a draw for some of her classmates as well. One even drives 30-plus miles to learn under Fregoso, after health issues and failing grades forced him out of public school. He briefly attended GED classes at a tutoring center before discovering the Ruth Hill class, where he said part of the appeal is Fregoso’s prior experience as a math teacher.
“It’s the best decision I ever made,” he said.
That student is progressing through his studies more slowly than O’Grady, but is making steady gains. Fregoso said one of the most frequently asked questions is how long a GED will take, which she said varies from student to student and depends on many factors. However, the commuting student improved four grade levels in at least one subject.
“It makes you feel really good,” said the student, who plans to attend West Georgia Tech and study fabrication or automotive engineering after he earns his GED. “Being treated like an adult really does help. My confidence is a lot better here, and I can ask questions without having to worry what people think.”
Employability skills weren’t important to one of Fregoso’s students, who said he always intended to drop out of school as soon as he could.
“All my life I’ve worked, so I thought I didn’t need school,” he said. “I didn’t really try in middle school, so all my grades were failing. And then when I tried harder in high school, it didn’t make any difference. Three of my friends dropped out and did online school, so I did too. But online school didn’t work for me, so I went back to regular school.”
He dropped out again, worked a couple of jobs before settling on construction. He signed up for GED classes at his girlfriend’s urging, he said, and now his goal is to earn his GED before she graduates from high school in the spring. He wants to be an entrepreneur, he said.
“I didn’t think I really needed school when I quit, but to own your own business, you have to at least know how to do a little math,” he said. “When I started classes, I didn’t even know how to lay out a division problem or which side to start from.”
His pretests look promising, Fregoso said, with scores indicating he would likely pass two parts of the exam and probably pass a third. He is working on a revised lesson plan and will apply for a scholarship for the exam – which costs $40 for each of the four sections – as soon as his pretest scores qualify.
Employability skills are now part of the West Georgia Tech’s GED curriculum, benefiting those students who intend to move directly into the workforce. If they want to pursue higher education, students work with a transition specialist who helps them fill out applications and navigate financial aid paperwork. West Georgia Tech waives its $50 application fee for those students, and the specialist helps them with everything from job interview skills to appearance.
“The goal is not just for them to have an education but also to enter our workforce and be productive citizens,” Fregoso said.
O’Grady said her next step will be to earn her business degree, and then work toward becoming a veterinarian. She said she wants to one day operate an animal sanctuary, even though her goals mean spending years in a place she used to loathe – the classroom.
“It’s not like (school) easy, but I found out I had it in me all the time – I just hadn’t been able to access it,” said O’Grady, who said she is excited about the opportunity to participate in an upcoming graduation ceremony. “I’ve proved I can really do it if I have the right environment and resources and people around me. I want to keep learning because that’s something I really like to do now.”