Northwest Indian College Adult Basic Education Program: A Legacy Through My Eyes

Mar 26, 2024 | Blog, Indigenous Adult Education, Our Programs

By Robert DeCoteau, NWIC Director of Workforce Education


An Early Encounter

My first encounter with Northwest Indian College’s (NWIC) Adult Basic Education (ABE) program was in the fall of 1989. I was 15 years old, a new student at Ferndale High School and a repeat resident of the Lummi Reservation. To say we moved around a lot while I was growing up would be an understatement. At that point I had lived in 11 different houses, shacks, or trailers usually on the rez. I didn’t know it then, but I would move another seven times before my expected graduation date.

Old day school building, where GED classes were formerly held.

Home was not a place I longed to be. As soon as I got off the bus and out of my school clothes, I was out and away until twilight. Many of the youth in our neighborhood would converge on the college to plan our after-school adventures. We called it “the college” even then, though none of us really knew what went on there. The campus at the time was a gravel parking lot, the old day school, and a couple of stick-built structures with no discernible purpose.

John Frey was the pioneer of the GED and credit retrieval programs, serving as the grant writer, administrator, and lead instructor. His classroom in the old day school building he shared with our dismal effort at a community library was beyond established in the way that brings to mind a collector’s ability to find a place for each new acquisition, a jumble of items that seem not to be organized while each having its place. A blown-up poster of Einstein stands out in my memory, his hair unruly like a pasture of thistles, his tongue protruding, a taunting call to action for every science-minded person with the gumption to pick up where he had left off. Einstein was part of the theme, but the Three Stooges in their black and white glory were featured prominently around the room as well.

Although I had been meeting up with my friends at the college after school for a couple of years, my motives on this particular day were not that of the boy I had been. I didn’t have hopes of fishing for nothing in our empty little pond, racing the trails to the big swing, or negotiating the terms of an imagined military conflict where something as simple as stealing a flag would determine a clear victor. I had fallen behind in my history and math classes, and I was told that this is where I could get help. There were only a few short weeks until the end of the term, and I was failing.

During the day, the classroom was dedicated to adult learners studying for the GED, but evenings were for high school kids. John Frey had negotiated terms with Ferndale High for a credit retrieval program to help Lummi youth. This allowed him to create an after-school program to help students complete credits to get on a track that would lead to graduation. John Frey, with the help of John Brommet and John Greene, worked to fill in the inequities of circumstance still evident in the public school system in the eighties and nineties.

As had been the habit that had led to my current predicament, I had left my textbooks in my locker at school that day. I was allowed to borrow classroom copies of my missing textbooks. John had anticipated this being an issue and had copies of all the common texts used at the high school. World History and Pre-Algebra were the classes I was at risk of failing.

Each class had packets of work to go with each chapter, and at the end of each chapter was a test that would be proctored by one of the faculty. I managed to earn back enough of the points I had lost from missing homework and failed tests. By the end of that term, I did well enough on the final exams to pass both classes.

Getting My GED

My second experience with the program wasn’t until 1998. Despite my work with the ABE program early on in high school, I dropped out my senior year and never returned. Though my older brother had graduated and moved out at 18, he was the only one out of us five siblings to do so, making him the exception rather than the norm.

There was no pressure in our immediate or extended family to succeed in school. Though I have been unable to track down data, I would estimate fewer than 30% of my Indigenous peers graduated in 1993. The grandmas and grandpas still carried the trauma associated with residential schools and our fathers and uncles found salmon fishing to be lucrative through the seventies and eighties with little or no formal education.

Come 1998, I was a displaced worker after the closing of the Lummi Casino, and grant funding was available for my retraining. By that point, a GED was the minimum qualification of most employment opportunities. Once again, I found myself working with John Frey to get my life back on track. His classroom had moved, but many of the familiar black and white images of the Stooges and Einstein graced the walls of the new space. It only took a couple of weeks of prep for me to pass the tests and get my GED, but I used the GED classroom as a homebase throughout the summer while I took computer classes at NWIC and waited for my Autobody Technology program to start at Bellingham Technical College. I informally volunteered some of my time to help other students coming through the GED process.

At that time, Kathy Humphreys was a part-time instructional technician for the program. She earned an associate degree at NWIC and had transferred to Western Washington University, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s of Education in 2000. She became a full-time faculty member of the ABE program soon after, working with John and eventually taking over when it came time for him to retire.

Full Circle

My third experience with the ABE program at NWIC started in 2016. I had been a blue-collar worker for most of my adult life and was displaced once again in 2008 after the housing market crash and ensuing recession. I returned to college, eventually earning a bachelor’s in business and a master’s in management and leadership. I applied for employment in the Workforce Education Department and quickly rose to the director position.

Adult Basic Education had become a workforce program at NWIC. The program was struggling. The credit retrieval partnership with the local high school had been discontinued and a shift in GED testing in 2012 made the four tests more difficult and time intensive. Many of our adult learners faced frustration with few being able to focus enough time and energy to meet the new requirements.

We had to move our classroom again. The tutoring department wanted to expand, and our ABE program had so few participants that we couldn’t make a case to keep the space. The third and current ABE classroom doesn’t have the Einstein or Stooges posters; I assume they went with John when he retired. It does, however, have the same feel as the space that I first stepped into back when I was fifteen. It is lived in and comfortable. It belongs to the students and the students belong.

In 2017, we established a partnership with Bellingham Technical College to offer competency-based high school completion in a program called High School+. Participants’ high school transcripts are evaluated, the number of missing credits are recorded, and an individual education plan is established. Students work through online classes and independent projects to fulfill the requirements and are eventually awarded an adult diploma. While we still offer GED and work with a handful of students that have chosen that path, we have achieved a high level of success working with our competency-based program. One of our first graduates was my oldest brother, finally earning his diploma at 50 years old. The number of students we work with that earn a diploma has steadily increased each year.

Current NWIC GED building, right.

The graduation rate of American Indians/Alaska Natives in our area has been steadily rising in the last decade, reaching 71% last year. Our community is finally showing signs of valuing education at a level that leads to positive outcomes. There is still work to be done, and it is our hope and goal that we can increase our program graduates each year to the point that they offset, and eventually eclipse, the number that fail out of the public school system.

Adult Basic Education is still commonly referred to as the GED program in our community though it has never been just that. It is the longest continuously running program at Northwest Indian College, more than 40 years old now. The program has enjoyed a remarkable amount of stability with John putting in more than 25 years after it was established and now Kathy surpassing 25 and still going.

Every now and again I’ll see the neighborhood kids meeting up after school on the old campus, gathering together before riding their bikes off on that day’s adventure. I’m hopeful that none of them will need our program, that each of them will have the wherewithal to stay in school and push through to commencement. Perhaps they will come to us for a degree to go with their diploma. One of them might even have my position one day and have to make that bittersweet decision to close the ABE program because there is just so little need for our services in the community.

Recent Blog Posts

Century of Citizenship

Century of Citizenship

American Indian and Alaska Native communities have achieved a great deal in the past century. Here at the American Indian College Fund, we look forward to what successes the future will bring as we encourage Native students, scholars, and communities alike to use the tools of citizenship to make their voices heard and their peoples prosper.