It’s a Wednesday evening. Outside a two-story white building, two students wait to enter class near River Garden, the former St. Thomas public-housing development. They are at the Hope House Adult Learning Center and the class is for those hoping to earn their GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma.
Inside, fluorescent lights beam down on the desks. Computers line up against the back wall. Books fill the shelves. Standing in the front of the class is Sister Lilliane Flavin. The petite volunteer educator and community advocate is dressed casually in a blue sweater and black pants. She peeres through her glasses while preparing the assignments for the night.
Flavin has been volunteering at Hope House since the early 1980s.
“There’s power in proximity,” said Flavin, quoting social justice advocate and attorney Bryan Stevenson. “We lived in the projects when we came here for 18 years in the middle of St. Thomas.”
For more than 40 years, people from low-income communities, including those in the St. Thomas area, have turned to Hope House for emergency assistance, food, and help with utility payments. One of its major initiatives is the High School Equivalency Test program, HiSET, where residents have an opportunity to earn a high school equivalency diploma.
There is a great need for the service. In the New Orleans metropolitan area, 15 percent of adults lack a high school diploma, according to the Data Center.
The Hope House HiSET program has students from all walks of life including parents, blue-collar workers, and those simply pursuing a dream they didn’t have the chance to earn earlier in life.
Students in the HiSET program range in age from 18 to 60 years old. Most face financial and housing challenges. Many program participants are just trying to keep their heads above water with living expenses, and a few are without a permanent residence. These students struggle to keep up with their rent, pay their utility bills, and take care of their families all while pursuing their education.
“So many people don’t come that didn’t finish school for all sorts of reasons,” said Don Everard, who has been executive director of Hope House for more than three decades. “But it takes a certain desire and certain courage to say, ‘I’m gonna get this thing.’”
The Hope House program started with a need. In the late 1960s, when segregation was ending, and integration was beginning, two religious sisters — Sister Lory Schaff and Sister Harriet Waldo — taught at Mercy Academy at Loyola and wanted to help students living in the St. Thomas neighborhood.
Mercy Academy’s students were white and middle-class. Schaff and Waldo wanted these youth to broaden their perspective and “meet some of the Black kids from other Catholic schools,” said Everard, who also teaches evening classes with Flavin at the learning center.
In 1969, Schaff and Waldo moved into the St. Thomas public housing project. They became entrenched in the community, finding out what the needs were and ways they could help, Everard said. The sisters’ efforts to create solutions for the community’s educational needs were the catalyst for Hope House’s Adult Learning Center.
Hope House has always extended a helping hand to individuals and families in the St. Thomas development and the surrounding neighborhood. Through their emergency assistance program, Hope House supports those who face eviction, lose utilities, and even covers the costs of family burials.
The HiSET program allows low-income residents to get an alternative diploma for free. The goal is to improve the lives of those living in the community.
“It definitely is a thing they have always wanted,” Sister Flavin said of her students. “Some people want to go to college, some want to get a better job.”
There are currently 60 students enrolled in Hope House’s HiSET program, including 42-year-old Kurtis A., who asked that his last name not be used.
During high school, Kurtis had an Individualized Education Program, to cater to his specific learning needs. He received a certificate for graduating rather than a high school diploma.
A few years ago, he was homeless for about nine months. He learned about the Hope House HiSET program through his case worker at the Ozanam Inn, where he was staying, said Kurtis, who has now been working on earning his GED for the past two years.
Like Kurtis, “a lot of people take a year or more” to complete the HiSET program, said Flavin, pointing out that the process varies for each student.
For example, Flavin remembered one of her students who graduated from the program last year to fulfill a pledge she had made to her dying mother.
“Her mother made her promise she would get her HiSET,” said Flavin, recalling how the student, with memories of her mother still fresh, had overcome struggles with math.
Not only did the student pass the test, but she also got a good score.
Louisiana’s pretest requirement can be daunting. Everard noted that many individuals who sign up for the HiSET program often give up because they feel intimidated by the test prerequisites and the journey ahead. He noted that the majority of students enter the program with low reading and math levels.
However, Flavin and Everard try to make the process easier, breaking the test down step by step. The HiSET is composed of five different sections: reading, writing, math, science and social studies. It includes two versions, a pretest and a post-test.
“When they finish an exercise, we check it and then reteach anything that was missed, that they didn’t catch, and then we give them another assignment,” Everard said.
The goal is to give assignments that are within the student’s grasp but will also challenge them. Encouragement plays a major role in student success.
For students like Kurtis, the support is appreciated. “They really sit down and take their time to work with you and prepare you for the test,” he said. “It helped me gain and build up my confidence.”
Within the next few months, Hope House plans to extend its adult learning center in partnership with the Ozanam Inn, a nonprofit organization that provides food, shelter and other supportive services to homeless individuals in New Orleans. Hope House’s goal is to offer the program to more people who want to earn their high school diploma. And with funding from Louisiana’s community and technical colleges, the organization sees the partnership with the Ozanam Inn as a great opportunity to provide easier on-site access for homeless individuals.
“We had a lot of our clients that would go to Hope House who were on the program,” said Clarence Adams, executive director at the Ozanam Inn since 1994. “It was something we had our eyes on all along; this is God at work.”
The partnership makes sense. Within Hope House’s HiSET program, there are a number of people who have experienced homelessness, even for a short period of time. Urban Institute data show that, during an average year, nearly one out of 10 low-income people experience homelessness.
Housing insecurity is an issue that isn’t often talked about or tracked regularly nationally or on the local level in regard to education.
Martha J. Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit that coordinates community partnerships to end homelessness, said the organization doesn’t have any recent statistics about homelessness and high school graduation rates, “but we are going to ask about this in our upcoming homeless survey on Jan. 23 and 24.”
But homelessness hasn’t stopped the determined from the opportunity to earn their GED.
Kurtis said his milestone moment will not only be special for him but a chance to make his daughter proud as well.
“I’m gonna be happy. I got a daughter and she’s going to be happy for me,” he said.
more from verite
Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:
Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.