Leila Yusuf is an immigrant who fled to the United States 19 years ago, during the civil war in Somalia. She’s 37 years old, has three children, and works as a shuttle bus driver in Washington, 20 miles south of Seattle. She longs for a “better job, better life” where she can make more than the minimum wage. She also wants more opportunities for her children. “I know they will have a better life if I study,” Yusuf says. She’s enrolled in an innovative program in Washington state that allows students like her to enroll in community college and earn credits right away.
Yusuf’s classmate, Shelley Sherman, dropped out of school when she was 17 years old, when she had a baby. Sherman says when her children were younger she “worked, worked, worked” just to pay bills and put food on the table. “I didn’t want to live on the system,” Sherman says. She’s been trying off and on for several years to go back to school but her work shifts kept changing and she couldn’t always make it to class. She’s also had health problems. If she had it all over again, she says, “I’d do it all different. I regret dropping out all the time.”
Sherman and Yusuf are two of approximately 30 million adults living in the U.S. without a high school diploma. Typically it would take years for students like them to reach college. They first have to earn a high school equivalency diploma such as the GED credential, take pre-college courses, and then enroll in college. This process can take a while and for adults who don’t aren’t fluent in English, the path can be even longer. This often discourages adult learners who already struggle to balance childcare, jobs and schoolwork.
The program I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) takes those challenges into consideration by shortening the amount of time it takes to earn a credential. Jon Kerr, the Director of Adult Basic Education for Washington, says students enrolled in I-BEST are similar to those in adult education classes across the country. They’ve typically been out of school for a significant amount of time. They often they don’t have a high school diploma or GED coming into the program, they have lower levels of literacy and math skills, and they’re often poor. “If you [never] finished high school,” Kerr says, “the likelihood that you’ve had a cycle of low-paying jobs is pretty high.” I-BEST began in Washington about 10 years ago when the community college system realized it had too many students who weren’t ready for college work and too many students were graduating not ready for the workforce. I-BEST was designed to change that—and so far the results are encouraging.
I-BEST has two deceptively simple components. The program relies heavily on team teaching, so students can get extra support in and out of the classroom. There’s also a close relationship between schoolwork and the demands of the workplace, so students can see a clear path to their eventual goal. Since 2007, I-BEST has been offered in all 34 community and technical colleges and in three correctional facilities in Washington. Approximately 21,000 students have gone through approximately 190 career tracks, including certified nursing assistant, welding technician, catering, and landscaping. Typically within a year, students can earn a certificate through I-BEST.
Candy Benteu and Rachel Rogers teach Yusuf and Sherman in a child development class at Green River Community College in Kent. Benteu covers the course content while Rogers teaches basic skills: reading, math, and English. Rogers says that before Benteu covers, for example, the different developmental stages of a toddler, she goes through vocabulary words and checks all the homework. She sometimes pretends to be a student and stops Benteu to ask a question she thinks students might be confused about. “I’m looking for that deer-in-the-headlights look, because they haven’t had a positive experience in school. They’re coming from a place where if they didn’t know the answer, they were humiliated and now they don’t want to seem stupid.”
I-BEST also emphasizes non-cognitive skills, such as sociability, conscientiousness, and perseverance. Nobel laureate James Heckman calls these “soft skills,” critical to a person’s success. “Back in the 19th century,” he says in an interview, “these non-cognitive skills—it was called “character” at that time—were very strongly encouraged and promoted as part of the curriculum. Now that’s dropped off the map. What hasn’t dropped off the map is the fact that these skills are very useful. We as a country have actually ruled out or ignored a facet of what was an essential part of American education 150 years ago.”
Both Benteu and Rogers talk with their students about workplace behavior, including basics like professional dress (no sweatpants or low-cut blouses, they say), perfume (don’t wear too much), and deodorant. They role play common work situations for their students. “Keeping your home stuff private and not sharing too much information with people that you work with. We have big conversations about that,” says Rogers. Benteu says being open and direct helps set clear expectations for students. “We tell them when you go on a job interview, you don’t tell your boss that you didn’t like your previous boss or talk bad about your past job. No one’s ever bothered to have that conversation with them.”