By Jim Snyder SIPI HSE Instructor

and

Christopher Harrington SIPI ABE Department Chair

For Native students who did not complete high school, the High School Equivalency (HSE) Certification program at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), formerly called the GED Program, serves as a stepping stone for furthering education and career opportunities.

SIPI is a federally funded two-year college in Albuquerque, New Mexico offering instruction to all Native American and Alaskan Native students seeking to earn high school equivalency certificates, vocational certificates, and associate degrees. SIPI’s mission is to prepare students to become life-long learners. For 50 years the institute has had a strong commitment to foster student success by focusing on students’ personal opportunities and helping them to continue their academic growth.

Recent changes in the assessment and validation of High School Equivalency (HSE) certification have resulted in renaming and re-visioning the program. The program has always focused on helping students earn their high school diploma. Now, with the help of the American Indian College Fund and the Dollar General Literacy Grant, the goal of the program has changed. Today SIPI uses this program to transition graduates of the program into further educational opportunities.

Adult students attend SIPI to earn a high school diploma for many reasons. Goals include improving  self-esteem and confidence; frustration with job stagnation or limited opportunities; getting lives on track; or wanting to serve as role models for children and helping them to succeed in school. Yet rarely do new HSE candidates dream of obtaining an advanced college degrees or technical certification when they arrive.

Most students have a burning desire to complete their HS diploma and hold that goal firmly in their sights every day. This goal is a great motivator, but an interesting consequence of modern computer testing means the morning after a student’s last successful test, he or she will find a screen image of a document with checks in all the right places and a bold YES in the box declaring they have successfully completed the program.

This happy achievement can be shocking and even a little disorienting. A student’s single-pointed focus on success may leave little time for thinking about what comes next.

Because SIPI is a trimester-structured school, students sometimes simply decide to return home to their families as soon as they have a certificate in hand.

After SIPI was awarded the American Indian College Fund’s Dollar General American Indian Literacy Grant in 2017, we decided to use the program to not only help our HSE candidates earn their certificate, but to improve their long-term

First we identified the largest obstacles to success and how to address them.

We knew that earning an HSE certificate was no easy feat. Gaining proficiency in five main subject areas while attending class five hours daily can seem daunting, especially right at the start of the program. SIPI students often travel far from home and disrupt their settled lives to move into the SIPI residence hall. They are meeting new people while having left those they know. The first part of the program involves long days of study, often in topics they have not reviewed in years. In addition, until students are ready to take the required subject area tests, there is little positive feedback.

Long days of study combined with social and financial disruption can result in students feeling discouraged and homesick. The program can feel daunting and often a student may give up at this point.

Prior to the new grant program, SIPI lost about 50% of students during this challenging first phase of study.

Today, grant support for students is structured to provide activities and assistance to help students them transition through this phase. This is especially important until they have successfully completed parts of the HSE testing. As a result, the drop out rate is 10% and lower. Once a student gets their foot in the door and experiences success on a sub-test or receives two pieces of positive feedback, they are encouraged and eventually stick out the program and succeed.

The second biggest issue in our students’ school lives has been completing a certificate with no plans for next steps in their education.

Thanks to the Dollar General Grant assistance, SIPI implemented many activities and experiences to keep these newly college-qualified students from floundering. Receiving recognition from family and community for their accomplishments helps students know they have the support and faith of others. This encourages their advancement. Instructional on-ramps to further college instruction, financial aid, and career advisement help prepare students to use their HSE certificate to enter college. By implementing these processes and awarding scholarships for students’ first semester’s tuition, we have helped every one of our HSE diploma students enter college classes at SIPI.

The success of each and every one of our students has become a story that grows in the telling. The first time that all of our HSE students graduated was a happy surprise. Each subsequent semester has capitalized on this momentum, and our students’confidence and expectations of success have grown.

Today many HSE students view continuing into a degree program as a matter of course, rather than a distant dream. Success becomes more easily imagined when students see that if they persist they will pass tests. In addition, program graduates help to encourage them by dropping by the classroom to check in on new students.

Following are a few of our students’ stories:

Robyn

Robyn Pradt, a SIPI GED program participant.

Robyn Pradt, a SIPI GED program participant.

Robyn was one of the first students to earn her high school diploma under the grant program. She said she had never felt that she was or could be a good student. Her past teachers made her feel she was a marginal student with little potential. She believed them. She struggled with her first attempt to earn her certificate, and almost despaired that she would not finish. But Robyn rallied, passing all of her tests on her second attempt.

Through the program, Robyn was encouraged to learn that she was an enthusiastic and energetic student. After earning her certificate, she was welcomed into SIPI’s award-winning culinary arts program. The Dollar General grant helped her with her initial tuition and with the purchase of her first chef’s uniform and tools.

We know one day soon we will be dining at Robyn’s first restaurant.

Wade

Wade began the program in the fall of 2017. He had a fire lit in his belly during the semester’s orientation week when he saw a demonstration of SIPI’s engineering program’s robot swarm. SIPI had just won a nationwide two-year college competition sponsored by NASA.

Wade struggled initially with math and writing. He hoped to be admitted to the engineering program, despite other students discouraged him, saying only the best and brightest students were admitted to the program.

Wade missed only the essay portion on his first HiSET test attempt. He spent the entire 2017 Thanksgiving vacation practicing writing and nailed it on his second attempt. Now a year later he has already joined the 2018 SIPI pre-engineering team, and is systematically completing the hard math courses he needs.

Wade visits the HSE classroom weekly. He is always a cheery presence and regularly encourages other students to succeed.

Brett Morgan, another SIPI GED program participant

Brett Morgan, a successful SIPI GED program participant.

A year to the day that Wade got the morning news of his HSE certificate, Brett Morgan got the same good news.

Wade, knowing of Brett’s test date, came to congratulate him and coach him through the next few steps. Brett took the screen print of his certificate to the registrar. He applied to study agriculture technology and resource management at SIPI. He used the remaining weeks of the fall semester to prepare for his next semester’s classes.

Wade, Robyn, Brett, and other students are writing the SIPI HSE Program and Dollar General Literacy Grant’s success with their achievements.