When Gale, part of Cengage Learning, announced in January 2014 that it would offer Career Online High School (COHS) through public libraries, the response was enthusiastic. The program, developed by Smart Horizons Career Online Education (SHCOE), a Florida-based distance learning company, offers a high school diploma accredited by the AdvancED Accreditation Commission and a career certificate in one of eight specialized areas of study through participating public libraries. Students apply for scholarships and, if accepted, have up to 18 months to complete the program—at their own pace, on their own schedule, from any computer with a broadband connection.
A year and a half in, the program is, by all accounts, a success. Since its launch at the Los Angeles Public Library, some 16 library systems nationwide have purchased more than 1,000 scholarship seats, with 551 students enrolled as of press time. Of those, 130 were more than halfway to completion. Thirty-six students have graduated, going on to higher-paying jobs and continuing their education in their chosen fields.
In early 2014, with SHCOE already partnered with Cengage Learning for its online Education to Go courses aimed at the business and professional market, Gale recognized that the COHS offerings would work well in the library space. “We saw this as a perfect fit with our mission to transform lives through education using public libraries as a community education venue,” Gale senior VP and general manager Paul Gazzolo told LJ. Gale customized the program, creating additional content and setting up a support system for participating libraries.
For years, the American Council on Education’s General Educational Development (GED) tests have been the main option for high school equivalency certification. The GED, which measures proficiency in science, mathematics, social studies, reading, and writing, was originally developed during World War II to measure the academic skills of personnel who had entered the military before completing high school. While GED certification is considered an accepted alternative to a diploma, it has also been viewed as something of a stopgap measure, and a 2006 National Bureau of Economic Research study found “no direct economic return to GED certification” when compared with actual high school graduates.
“Forty million American adults lack a high school diploma, and there really aren’t options for them to go back and get a true diploma,” said Gazzolo. “Once they’re out of [school age], and not in a system…that might offer this as part of their services, there are very few choices.” COHS offers not only a diploma but specific certification that enables graduates to transition straight to the field of their choice or a course of college study. Many COHS students, added Gazzolo, are in their 30s and 40s, with jobs and families of their own. “To be able to help their kids with homework while they’re doing their own homework is really resonant,” he noted. In addition, the library is an approachable space, without the stigma or negative associations that a school might hold.
When Mario Rideaux discovered he didn’t have a high school diploma, the Sacramento Public Library (SPL) was the first place he turned. Rideaux, 43, had gone through nearly a year’s worth of background checks to work in corrections when his investigator called him with the news that the online program he had gotten his equivalency diploma through, years before, was not accredited. “All these years, none of my jobs caught it,” Rideaux told LJ. “I was really upset.”
When he spoke with Stephanie Allen, SPL’s adult literacy supervisor, she convinced Rideaux to wait and apply for a COHS scholarship as soon as the program opened in July 2014. He was the first student to enroll, graduated a year later, and is now studying criminal justice management at the University of Phoenix online. “I couldn’t believe I’d been walking around all this time without [a diploma],” Rideaux marveled. “But that’s all behind me now.”
HOW IT WORKS
Potential students, who must be over 19 years old, apply for scholarships through the library, taking an initial online assessment to evaluate readiness indicators such as basic literacy and access to technology. Once a student passes, he or she then takes a pre-requisite course—essentially a two-week mini-version of the course that, says Gale VP and publisher of research databases Phil Faust, “kind of walks them through what the COHS experience would be, makes sure that they can be successful doing it: can you take an online course? Do you have the discipline to put some time aside every week and do this?”
Once officially enrolled, students set up their own accounts and passwords, choose a major, and sign a contract that initiates a request to pull their existing high school transcripts in order to transfer any completed credits. Each student is also paired with a coach, who will work closely with the student to monitor progress, offer encouragement, and provide academic help. Coaches are accredited teachers who work in the Florida educational system; COHS follows the state curriculum.
Determining a concentration up front gives students focus and direction within the program, explained Faust, and students pick one of eight career tracks: Child Care and Education (CDA), Certified Protection Officer, Certified Transportation Services, Office Management, Homeland Security, General Career Preparation/Professional Skills, Retail Customer Service Skills, or Food and Customer Service Skills. In addition to courses in their chosen specialization, students also take English, math, science, and social studies, covering areas such as world literature, algebra, biology, U.S. government, and economics. The program can be accessed from a home or library computer or mobile device.
“They have it mapped out pretty well,” said Genevieve Redondo, 34, who is nearly halfway through her program at San Diego Public Library since she started in April. “The way they’ve got the courses put together, it’s really easy to follow, though parts of it are challenging.” Redondo recently finished her earth science final, and planned to move on to physical science, algebra one and two, economics, government, and one more English class before graduating.
The relationship with her COHS coach is critical for Redondo. “She’s really great at walking me through what I need to do, like a tutor, basically,” she said. “She calls me once a week to follow up with me, to track how I’m doing, and if I have any questions at all she’ll email me. Every single time I complete a course she emails me: Hey, great job. She’s kind of like a cheerleader…. It’s nice to have that encouragement.”
Rideaux agreed. “The teachers call and email you all the time—when you get an A in a particular subject or on a quiz, they encourage you and say ‘Keep up the good work,’ and ‘You’re getting closer to your graduation.’” He added, “It’s almost like a real teacher, but at the same time you’re not sitting in a class where a teacher has maybe 19 kids and she’s not able to tend to each one.”
Sabrina Montgomery, 22, was SPL’s first graduate in March. She is currently studying criminal justice at American Public University, an accredited online school, and credits COHS with the confidence she needed to enroll. “I figured if I could do the high school program online I could do the college program online,” she told LJ.
INVESTING IN SUCCESS
Students aren’t the only recipients of support. Gale also offers comprehensive training and support to participating libraries, and spends several weeks helping them prepare to launch COHS. “Similar to the academic coach being a hands-on partner to the student, we have a dedicated team that is a hands-on partner to the library, to make sure they’re successful as they roll these programs out, and continue to have that success and support as they implement and grow the program,” Faust explained.
Blocks of COHS scholarships run approximately $1,200–$1,300 apiece, although costs scale depending on the size of the package. A large urban library might buy 100 or 200 scholarships; a small rural library might start with 25, and Gale will work with them to help secure funding.
COHS proved to be a perfect fit for the six-year-old College Depot program, a free full-service college access center in Phoenix Public Library (PPL) that provides college planning help, from choosing schools and courses of study to filling out financial aid forms and searching for scholarships. “Over the last six years we’ve gotten daily inquiries [from people saying] ‘I want to go to college but don’t have high school diploma yet. What’s my next step?’” College Depot director Judy Reno told LJ. She had always referred people to GED programs and alternative high schools, “so it was a really natural fit to absorb COHS into our daily work.”
Gale did a series of webinars with PPL, providing an infrastructure of best practices and advice about how PPL could customize the COHS model for its patrons. In addition, Reno told LJ, PPL has also received support from the other libraries offering the program. “We call each other, ask questions, figure things out.”
Since launching COHS through College Depot in January 2015, PPL has received over 300 applications, and has enrolled more than 50 people; two have already graduated. One graduate, Enrique, has already started a new job at twice his former hourly wage, with health benefits and a 401k plan. “He wanted to be an example to his children,” said Reno. “He took a lot of initiative, was very proactive, and is a good example of how, with a few doors open and a few resources, someone can really make a huge difference in a short amount of time in their own life.” His wife has since enrolled in COHS as well.
“I absolutely love the program,” Redondo told LJ. “I don’t know what I would do without it, honestly. I struggled a lot throughout school and didn’t always have the best support…. I don’t feel any kind of stress with this program. The classes can be difficult at times, but that’s a given. It’s school; school’s not easy. But it totally changed everything for me. It’s made everything so much better.”
Rideaux concurred. “Anybody I knew who didn’t have [a diploma], if they came and talked to me about it I would definitely give them the number and say ‘Hey, you need to do this.’”