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I love happy endings, especially in real life. Throw in the opportunity for second chances and I’m hooked.

We all carry within ourselves stories that paint the backdrop of our lives, shaping us into the individuals we are. When we share these stories, they can be affirming for tellers and enlightening to listeners.

Not long ago I had the good fortune to listen to students enrolled in adult education classes across the state share their experiences on the road to better endings, each including a second chance decision. Those on the Zoom call were taking lunch breaks from classes or jobs, in itself a testimony to their hard work and success.

These folks, ages 17 and older, had gotten off track but eventually had taken advantage of the free adult education options available in West Virginia. Their stories were compelling. I was uplifted by their clear-eyed analysis of their pasts and their justifiable pride in their current circumstances. They had solid goals with step-by-step plans to achieve them, driven by determination to control of their lives and find better opportunities for themselves and their families.

They spoke of earlier choices diverting them from the path to successful adulthood. Some had dropped out of school, were waylaid by drugs or alcohol, spent time in the juvenile justice system, or got caught up in relationships resulting in teenage parenthood. Several admitted that they hadn’t applied themselves while in high school, despite their families’ and schools’ best efforts to steer them otherwise.

One young man revealed that he came to West Virginia looking for healthier living. His mother’s untimely death had had the positive effect of helping him set his life on a better path, motivating him to get his GED for her.

Their faces brightened as they shared experiences in adult education classes offered through the West Virginia Department of Education. Despite skepticism when starting these programs, they are now firm believers.

“The programs helped me bloom,” one student said, recounting past experiences that contributed to her depression and anxiety. Another spoke eloquently about his awakening, tired of working the dead end jobs that were all he could find as a high school dropout.

Now, high school diploma in hand, he is eager to enlist in the military and hopes to attend college some day. He will be the first in his family to do so.

Another noted that when her husband was laid off, she made connections through the Department of Health and Human Resources and finished adult education programs, eventually earning her bachelor’s degree. Now gainfully employed, she is working on her master’s degree in adult education.

One young man, having completed several adult education programs, has applied to community college to prepare himself to become a paramedic. His sincerity, humor and passion for his dream career impressed me. I told him that if I ever ended up in an ambulance I hoped that he would be there.

Each story touched my heart.

Here’s where second chances came into play. By seeking out and enrolling in adult education, they believed they could rebuild self-respect, skills, and a pathway to independence.

And they have done just that.

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They completed GED and certificate programs offered at no cost through state agencies and county adult education programs. Some went on to college or advanced training, and others got jobs as a result of their new training. They attributed their success to the quality of the programs, their personal commitment to being “completers” and the passion of instructors who gave life to their dreams and helped build their confidence.

The group reacquainted me with Adult Education Services at the Department of Education.

Free programs focusing on employability, literacy and productivity offer West Virginia adults opportunities to build skills for success in the workplace, home, and community. Located in every county, with remote education options for those unable to attend class regularly, over 8,000 people are served each year. The high school equivalency preparation and testing program enrolls over 2,500 more adults each year, with a passage rate outpacing the national average. In addition, adult learners can earn certificates in Microsoft Office and QuickBooks, Adobe, digital literacy and customer service. Resume’ preparation is an essential component, along with English language training for non-native speakers and citizenship test preparation.

Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery preparation and testing are offered for those interested in military careers. Apprenticeships and training in CPR, first aid and defibrillators are available.

Other programs provide on-the-job training. Responding to employers’ needs, Integrated Education and Training Programs concentrate on workplace skills development. These programs help students apply relevant work experience, learn specific job skills, and sharpen their soft skills.

Through the West Virginia Public Service Training component, over 40,000 firefighters, emergency medical technicians, wastewater operators and those in law enforcement are served annually, helping them to maintain the health, safety and well-being of the public. And correctional facilities and regional jails help inmates transition to the workforce and provide training that will lead to jobs upon release.

I learned about strategic planning in occupational knowledge for employment and success.

This collaborative program between the Department of Education and DHHR addresses the academic and personal skills essential to secure and maintain useful employment. It provides daily intensive training and coaching for West Virginia WORKS-referred participants. Full-time adult basic education instructors are assigned to each class, while job coaches help students develop employability plans, establish industry partnerships, coordinate job development and place participants in jobs.

Instructors and job coaches continue to interact with students beyond program completion.

The adults I had the good fortune to talk to realized that dreaming big dreams is important but not enough. Dolly Parton, a believer in the power of education who has put big dollars into early literacy, remarked, “You can’t just will your dreams to come true. You have to work hard. You have to give ‘em wings, arms, legs . . .whatever it takes.”

These adults were brave enough to take the first step and were working hard to give wings to their dreams.

Strong public schools and accessible adult workforce development efforts are critical if West Virginia is to thrive. By expanding skills and capabilities beyond a high school diploma, earning potential is increased exponentially. Looking to the future, workforce surveys suggest that 60% of working-aged West Virginians will need a certificate or degree to meet workforce demands.

But beyond the personal and economic considerations, advanced learning boosts the value of education in families and communities. Parents and guardians become solid models for their children, not just talking the talk but showing the way.

Adult education programs offer a second chance for West Virginians. When we as a state take actions that create these possibilities and the clock can be rewound. Good things can happen. Hope is fundamental to adult education. And we can all certainly benefit from more of that.

Debra K. Sullivan is a member of the West Virginia Board of Education.

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