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How Gainesville nonprofit is helping Latino immigrants get GEDs
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A sign-in sheet sits at the front of the classroom during a GED class Wednesday, March 27, 2019, put on by the Hispanic Alliance for immigrants and native Spanish speakers . - photo by Austin Steele

For many years, Maria Orozco dreamed of returning to school after dropping out in ninth grade at 15 years old.

She wasn’t motivated by only a desire to climb the social ladder, find a better job and make more money. It also was a matter of principle and pride.

“For me, this is to prove to myself that I could do this,” Orozco said of enrolling in a Spanish-language GED program offered by the Hispanic Alliance GA, a Gainesville nonprofit.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school,” she added. “This is one of my goals in my life.”

Orozco said she hopes earning a GED will serve as a good example to her four children, who she is now raising as a single mother.

“That’s another reason,” Orozco said. “I want to start new.”

Gainesville’s population is about 42 percent Latino, with many immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala who, for socio-economic or other reasons, never finished a formal high school education.

That’s a gap the Hispanic Alliance is trying to fill.

“We believe this is an initiative which will help our community out of poverty and afford them opportunities to further their education,” said Vanesa Sarazua, executive director of the Hispanic Alliance. “There are many other benefits to this program for our community and our parents supported by data, including improved self-confidence and even more engagement with their children’s school.”

But the challenges to passing the GED are varied.

Just 9 percent of Latinos who drop out of high school go on to earn a GED, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Moreover, less than a quarter of Latinos earn passing grades on the test, according to GED Testing Services, compared with an average 75 percent pass rate among all test takers.

According to members of the first cohort studying for the GED tests at the Hispanic Alliance, language barriers and cultural unfamiliarity with the American educational system are likely responsible.

“It is not easy to reach this country with an educational base in Spanish and have to learn a new language and then four materials in that language,” Sarazua said. “It takes time. Our GED classes support general education acquisition in our Latino community, providing them with the opportunity to obtain a diploma equivalent in their base language.”

Most of the students in the Hispanic Alliance class do not speak much English.

Orozco is an exception. But, though she speaks English well, she learns better in Spanish.

“It was really necessary,” Orozco said. “We could find (other classes) in English but not Spanish.”

Instructor Claudia Moran de Garcia said some Spanish-language prep courses also do not meet standards or regulations.

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Claudia Garcia instructs students Wednesday, March 27, 2019, during a GED course put on by the Hispanic Alliance for immigrants and native Spanish speakers. - photo by Austin Steele

Students, with Garcia translating, said having textbooks and study materials in Spanish, as well as a fluent Spanish-speaking instructor, gives them confidence.

And they said passing the GED could be a stepping stone to learning more English.

The first cohort of about 10 students, which meets for three hours twice a week, is working through the language arts portion of the curriculum before moving on to social studies, science and mathematics.

Most students are women, some with children, and before class on a recent afternoon, they discussed the demands of studying for the GED while trying to balance work and home life.

There’s an obvious camaraderie among the group, who converse about the stress but also laugh with one another and work together to learn the subject material.

“Some of them, they have something in common, but others are different,” Garcia said.

Elizabeth Giron, who was born in El Salvador and has three children, said she aspires to open her own bakery.

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Elizabeth Giron asks a question about a homework assignment during a GED class put on by the Hispanic Alliance for immigrants and native Spanish speakers on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

Like other students, Giron said she believes earning a GED is a step down that path.

It’s been a long journey to get here — Giron has been out of school for 23 years — and she doesn’t want to disappoint.

“For me, (this is) to get a better job,” she said. “And maybe, in the future, get my own business.”

Giron said she also wants “to prove to the kids that at my age … it’s not too late.”