When Low-Income Parents Go Back to School
By Leah Askarinam
February 19, 2016
Leon Sykes has eight children at home, works two jobs, and drives for Uber and Lyft on the side. Yet the 34-year-old father has found time to take classes Monday through Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. to earn his high-school credentials at Academy of Hope, an adult public charter school in Washington, D.C. Sykes is about two years into the program. His wife usually picks up their children, ages 5 to 15, from after-school activities, but he still can’t always make it to class. “Some days, you just have to pick and choose,” he says.
About one in 10 low-income parents participate in education and training courses, according to a 2014 report by the Urban Institute. About half of those parents work while enrolled, creating a need for childcare. The Department of Labor’s Strengthening Working Families Initiative has set aside $25 million to fund partnerships between workforce and childcare organizations to help parents who want to advance their education. For parents who did not graduate from high school, earning a GED can have financial benefits. Adults who hold a GED certificate end up with higher monthly earnings than those who never finished high school.
Working parents often take classes in the evenings but childcare centers generally close before 6 p.m., leaving parents to find informal options, such as asking a family member to come over or dropping a child off with a neighbor. At Academy of Hope, which has two campuses serving a total of about 330 students, 42 percent say they have at least one dependent. Parents can participate in the GED-preparation program or in the college-transition program, where students can earn four college credits that transfer to a local community college. Parents who take classes here can qualify for a voucher for childcare through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, but there are more children than slots. And while the school considered offering childcare, it has decided that it would be too complex and costly.
The Academy of Hope CEO Lecester Johnson says that there are plenty of reasons a student might have to miss class: Many students have multiple jobs, for instance, and schedule changes can prevent them from showing up. Being a parent, however, can make things even more difficult. “If their babysitting or childcare falls apart, there isn’t usually a backup, and that's the case for most folks,” Johnson says. At this school, female students who are also parents are especially affected by the lack of childcare, according to Richmond Onokpite, a lead science and technology teacher. Nationally, of the 1.8 million low-income parents who participate in education and training, more than half are single moms.
In a science class at Academy of Hope sits Domonique Gillis, a 27-year-old single mother of four. This is her favorite subject. Gillis grew up in West Virginia, where she did well in high school. But her junior year she got into a fight, which resulted in her being moved to an alternative school. She knew that the alternative school was for “bad kids,” and so she stopped listening in class and completing her school work. “I wasn’t bad until I went there and I adapted to the environment to fit in,” she says. “And then I stopped going to school.”
About two years ago, she started taking classes at Academy of Hope to earn a GED. Last year, she missed too many classes to complete the program. This year, she might again miss too many classes to finish it. Academy of Hope usually allows eight missed classes per 13-week term, though the staff tries to meet with each student before his or her absences reach this point to discuss solutions. “Once students miss beyond that eight, it’s really hard for them to catch up,” Johnson says.
While parents have a hard time actually getting to class, the benefits can be huge for their kids, as poor children whose parents have at least a GED or high-school diploma are more likely to complete high school. Johnson said she notices that a lot of parents start enrolling at Academy of Hope when their kids reach fourth grade, after recognizing that they need to pursue their education to help their children with homework. Parents start attending school functions, too, as their positive adult education experience starts replacing frequently negative childhood ones.
At Academy of Hope, about a quarter of students set a goal to become more involved in their children’s schooling; about 70 percent achieve it. “[They] look at the child’s homework and they can help them out, rather than just looking at the homework and having no idea what’s going on,” Onokpite says.
Gillis said that her eldest son has provided a lot of encouragement. She says if she doesn’t earn her high-school credentials, her children won’t feel they have to, either. “My son said, ‘Mom, if you want a high-school diploma from me, you have to get your GED. If you don’t get your GED, I can’t promise you a high-school diploma.’ So that made me want to go to school more to get my GED because I owe it to my kids.”