As the sixth largest city in Texas, in terms of population, the El Paso Public Library (EPPL) serves a large and diverse community with a wide range of educational needs. According to a 2012 census report, 17 percent of Texans over the age of 25 years do not have a high school diploma,1 and in cities like El Paso, that figure rises—a staggering 23 percent of the population has not completed their high school education.2
This has a significant impact on the community. In fact, in EPPL’s own survey, they learned that the unemployment rate was very high and a large percentage of people who were coming to the library were earning less than $10,000 per year. Believing that libraries are organizations about lifelong learning, EPPL director, Dionne Mack states, “the library feels it is important for our patrons to have easy access to resources that can help them acquire the skills they need to be successful.”
El Paso Public Library offers more than 300 classes in over 14 locations. They focus on assisting adults who want to improve their English language skills, expand their digital literacy, acquire a GED, and take steps toward U.S. citizenship. “Libraries are in a rare position to get to know their communities and learn what issues mean the most to them,” says Mack. “As we looked at what our community needed, we determined that Gale’s Career Online High School (COHS) would be a valuable and beneficial resource.” She also indicated that the national overhaul of the GED program played a major role in how the library leadership thought about the option of adding COHS. After two years of supporting the revamped GED program, they saw a steep decline in people taking and passing the test. This inspired Mack to find an alternative for people who want to earn a high school diploma from an accredited program and complete coursework at their own pace.Career Online High School is an 18-credit program taken online with the support of an academic coach who monitors the student’s progress and helps keep them on track. Not only do graduates earn an accredited high school diploma and career certificate, they learn vital job skills and develop a career portfolio. When adults finish the program, they are prepared to enter the workforce—or continue on to post-secondary education. Students are given up to 18 months to complete the program, with the average being 10 months, and they can transfer in previously earned high school credits.
When the opportunity came to add COHS to their program offerings, Mack wondered how the cost would balance with the overall value. “When you start to look at what this [diploma] really means for people in terms of their life and in terms of what they are able to give back to the community—no one can argue that it isn’t a benefit,” says Mack. “It is a way for the city and its libraries to play a role in creating change that will last,” she adds. El Paso is a young community, meaning that people are going to be in the workforce for a very long time. Having a high school diploma increases their earning potential and provides a pathway forward into higher education. As an institution, the library realized that money spent on scholarships is well worth the investment due to the long-term financial and societal benefits it brings to the community.
Any reservations the EPPL had about adding COHS dissipated when they learned other library systems had taken this big step. At the time they were evaluating the program, 67 libraries had already implemented COHS, including the states of New Jersey, Florida, and California, and libraries in Los Angeles and San Diego were already graduating students. “Those places who had some of the same challenges in terms of educational attainment and a growing population had certainly done their investigation and taken a leap, which helped to solidify those [stakeholders] who may have had doubts about this program and accreditation,” says Mack.
To further alleviate any concerns her community had regarding the program’s validity, Mack compared their local high schools’ accreditations with that of COHS—both are accredited by the exact same entity. The next step for EPPL was cultivating partnerships with the city’s workforce and economic development teams as well as ensuring that COHS was not displacing services provided by the local Department of Education but adding to them by providing another option for the 36,000 El Paso adult residents without a high school diploma.
After deliberation, the El Paso city council approved a three-year contract and the library began enrolling students. Since its implementation last year, EPPL has seen four students complete the program, holding their first graduation ceremony on June 1, and many others on track to earn their high school diplomas this year. Graduate Breanna Burrow said upon completion:
Mack shared why the fight for this program had such meaning. She could relate to the struggles, hopes, and concerns on a personal level. “My father left school during eighth grade and worked as a sharecropper in South Carolina. He worked minimum wage jobs until I was well into high school. It was then that he decided to go back to school and earn a vocational license to be a truck driver. He quadrupled his income and forever changed our family’s future. Every day I carry with me what that meant for my father and our family. It helps me see the tangible difference that education can make,” says Mack. In the end, she knows that Career Online High School was worth the fight and the investment. The program has already begun to contribute to the development and sustainability of El Paso, which to members of the community, is priceless.
Interested in learning more about Career Online High School, visit gale.com/diploma.
1U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 American Community Survey One-Year Public Use Microdata Sample.