Can the city’s investment in a high school equivalency program improve residents’ economic mobility?
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”
Stacey Joya, 27, was one of those residents for whom these opportunities were out of reach. Never a strong student, she had dropped out of school after getting pregnant in the ninth grade. The next decade brought two full-time jobs and two lay-offs. She and her partner, a cook who works 12-hour days, fell behind on rent. “I was so upset,” she said. “My mom and step-dad kept telling me, ‘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
For more than 120 years, YWCA’s Southeast Wisconsin (SEW) chapter has served the SEW community on issues related to racial justice, economic empowerment, and public health and safety. Serving 12,000 residents annually in the southeast region of the state, the YWCA SEW brought its HSED program to Racine in 2017 in partnership with Gateway Technical College and Racine County. The program was identified by the City of Racine and Higher Expectations for Racine County — a local nonprofit that convenes civic and community leaders and supports research and analysis on local initiatives — as a promising strategy to help advance thousands of residents’ economic mobility.
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
Since launching in Racine in August 2017, the YWCA SEW program has served approximately 240 of the city’s 9,500 adult residents who lack a high school diploma, the latter a number that grows each year. Each year, about 80 percent graduate; to date, the program has graduated 190 individuals. Twenty-five percent of these graduates self-report that they enroll in technical colleges, while 63 percent self-report that they obtain work or improve their employment status. Racine Mayor Cory Mason has recognized the program as “able to address a seemingly intractable problem,” said Ms. Selkowe, one that the City urgently needs to solve to avoid losing better-paying jobs to other places and to ensure that Racine’s 77,432 residents have the opportunity to build sustainable lives.
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
In the spring of 2019, the City of Racine was selected as one of nine cities to participate in the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility initiative, a new program designed for cities to increase their residents’ economic mobility prospects and to share how cities and local communities can help reverse the national trend of declining economic mobility. Each city in the program chose an acute challenge to address through a pilot project: Racine chose to increase the number of residents with a high school diploma or equivalent by expanding the YWCA SEW program, offering more career-development support, and building evidence of its impact.
“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
Upon acceptance into the initiative, Mayor Mason convened the heads of local entities essential to the HSED program’s expansion, forming a partnership between the City and Racine County, the YWCA SEW, Gateway Technical College, Higher Expectations for Racine County, and the Racine Unified School District. Though all of the partners have worked on expanding various opportunities for Racine’s residents, it was the first time they had come together to discuss and design an HSED program expansion.
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.