Graduates earning their high school equivalency diploma in Racine. Images courtesy of the YWCA SEW program.

Recharging Racine

Can the city’s investment in a high school equivalency program improve residents’ economic mobility?

What Works Cities
Feb 4 · 8 min read

By Alison Gardy

RACINE, WI — For decades, Racine has had the highest unemployment rate in Wisconsin, even though at first glance, its job boards seem to offer thousands of work opportunities.

Upon closer inspection, however, many of these jobs are low-wage, geographically remote, part-time, or seasonal. An increasing number of higher-wage jobs are becoming available, but they require a high school diploma or its equivalent such as a general education diploma (GED) or high school equivalency diploma (HSED), as do the many free job training programs, apprenticeships, and post-secondary opportunities that are critical to accessing higher-wage work.

Today, 92 percent of job openings in the Racine area require high school or higher education credentials, but only 83 percent of the city’s adult residents have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Of the 17 percent who do not, half are 18–46 years old. The mismatch between available work and training opportunities and qualified participants means many Racine residents cannot access either the free training programs, many of which have empty seats, or job opportunities with family-sustaining incomes.

“You Need to Go Back to School”

For individuals like Ms. Joya, earning an HSED is a critical first step toward increasing lifelong earnings and avoiding an abyss of debt or falling into poverty. Nationally, almost 26 percent of people without a high school diploma live below the poverty line, more than double the rate of those who do have a high school credential and more than five times the rate of those with a college degree. In Racine County, high school graduates annually earn about 40 percent more than those without a high school diploma or its equivalent. The income difference between high school graduates and college graduates is even greater. Over a lifetime, these earning gaps amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost opportunity and deepening poverty, even for working families.

More than an HSED Program, It’s a Community

The program’s state-approved curriculum offers not only English and math, but also employability skills — such as memo writing, conflict resolution, and budgeting, as well as soft skills — such as punctuality, visible attentiveness, getting along with peers, and even healthy eating. Recognizing how intimidating it can be to go back to school after negative high school experiences, the program eases student anxiety by offering end-of-unit assessments rather than a single final exam and enables students to earn their HSED in a concentrated period of time.

“A light comes on for students in a program like this. They get that first test done. They do better than they thought. They think, ‘Maybe I am smart.’”

The keystone of the program’s success, according to Vicky Selkowe, the City’s Manager of Strategic Initiatives and Community Partnerships, is that it also fosters a caring community among each cohort of 15 to 20 students — half to two-thirds the size of an average high school classroom. Teachers encourage students to support each other during the 15-to-25-week program and beyond.

In March 2019, Ms. Joya discovered the YWCA SEW’s HSED program thanks to an alumna she knows and trusts, who said the program would teach her skills for success in the workplace and in life. Like Ms. Joya, most participants in the program did not finish high school due to life-changing events, including family illness, death, homelessness, and back-to-back tragedies. Most come to the program because of personal endorsements by graduates they trust.

By the end of the 20-week course, Ms. Joya graduated with an “A” in math and earned her HSED. She also came away with an appreciation for the program’s quality instruction and caring support. “A light comes on for students in a program like this,” said HSED Program Coordinator Marie Hargrove. “They get that first test done. They do better than they thought. They think, ‘Maybe I am smart.’”

Today, Ms. Joya is employed as a full-time administrative assistant and is pleased with the job’s salary, benefits, schedule, and opportunity for future growth. She reports that she is “loving it.”

A First Step, Not The Last

Currently, however, the program reaches less than three percent of Racine residents who lack a high school diploma or its equivalent. Historically, it has had no marketing plan and has filled seats by word-of-mouth.

And, the program aspires to be a bridge for its students, not a final destination. “We know that a high school degree is the first step, not the last,” said Ms. Selkowe. “We want to direct HSED students to technical college, four-year college, job trainings, and apprenticeships.” To expand, the program needs more effective recruitment methods, sustainable funding to hire more teachers, and more program sites throughout the city.

Joining a Cohort of Cities

“People and institutions are communicating, connecting, and coordinating in a way they never have before. The potential to make something big happen is finally here.”

As part of this 18-month initiative, the City of Racine and its community partners have begun working with a team of advisors from expert partners in the WWC network to increase the number of graduates of the YWCA SEW program. According to Ms. Selkowe, the Mayor and City hope to answer the question, “What does an HSED mean for access to higher wages, career potential, and other opportunities?”

A Reason to Be Optimistic

The City also successfully advocated for a WWC grant to the YWCA SEW to hire a second HSED program coordinator, who was a trusted former teacher in the program. “The grant demonstrated to the YWCA SEW that the City was serious about getting them resources,” said Ms. Selkowe.

Now, the City is racing to expand the program so as to quadruple its graduates each year and improve graduates’ connections to continued education, training, or job placement.

Racine’s participation in the WWC initiative has come at a crucial time, making possible the expansion and enrichment of a successful HSED program in a way that overstretched City staff and local partners might not have had the time, technical assistance, funding, or platform to pursue. “Being part of the WWC economic mobility cohort has energized and focused our work here at the City of Racine,” Ms. Selkowe said. “It has generated excitement from our local partners and has helped us envision and plan for bigger, bolder, and more sustainable systems alignment and measurable outcomes.” Now that the partnership has been established, she said, the focus needs to be on making it happen.

There is reason to be optimistic. “Thanks to the City bringing us all together,” said YWCA SEW Adult Education Manager Jake Gorges, who designed its HSED program, “people and institutions are communicating, connecting, and coordinating in a way they never have before. The potential to make something big happen is finally here.”


Alison Gardy is a communications consultant and lead writer for Results for America.

The What Works Cities Economic Mobility initiative is an 18-month program that aims to help nine participating cities identify, pilot, and measure the success of local strategies designed to accelerate economic mobility for their residents. Through the expertise of the What Works Cities’ network of partners and the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ballmer Group, this initiative puts data and evidence at the center of local government decision-making.

Launched in 2015, What Work Cities helps local governments use data and evidence more effectively to tackle their most pressing challenges and improve residents’ lives. Learn more about What Works Cities at whatworkscities.org.

What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative

Launched in April 2019, the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative supports cities as they develop, pilot, and measure the success of programs that are designed to accelerate economic mobility for residents.

What Works Cities

Written by

Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative

Launched in April 2019, the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative supports cities as they develop, pilot, and measure the success of programs that are designed to accelerate economic mobility for residents.

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