Jesús came to Santa Fe from Chihuahua, Mexico almost exactly two years ago. For most of his 23 years, he has worked in construction––but being a single dad to his toddler inspired him to reach for more in his education and career.

Without a high school degree, his options were limited, until he decided to take both high school equivalency (HSE) and trade classes offered at the Santa Fe Community College this year.

"I have done construction for all my younger years," Jesús, who asked that we not use his last name, tells SFR. "I'm 23 and I have a 3-year-old that really deserves the best. … This is the way to do it."

SFCC's high school equivalency classes are offered in English or Spanish; students can enroll while they work on a college certificate in health care, called the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program (I-BEST).

The programs aim to address an urgent need: Increase the literacy and employability of Santa Feans, as New Mexico's high school graduation and literacy rates continue to drag along well below the national average.

I-BEST also offers classes to prepare for careers as a certified phlebotomist, community health worker, home health aide, patient care assist or early childhood education specialist. They can be completed in one to three semesters and can be taken while students are in the English as a Second Language (ESL) or high school equivalency programs.

Katherine Lewin

That's the path Jesús took. He finished his Certified Nursing Assistant classes over the summer, passed the state test, and he's already working at the Santa Fe Care Center as a nursing assistant. He's done with construction for the foreseeable future and is still looking forward to what's possible. His goal is to become a registered nurse and eventually a pediatric practitioner.

There are several common reasons people decide to go back to get their high school equivalency and as many ways to complete it. Students can either take the General Educational Development Test, commonly known as the GED, or earn their High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED), an alternative to the GED.

"Many of them have children and they want to be a good role model or to help their children with their homework and they don't know how to do it themselves," says Ed Ashmead, a program specialist and instructor for the English classes at the college. "Getting a job is a really big one."

The reasons why people don't have their high school diploma are just as varied and unique to the individual. Some are immigrants; others had to leave school to work.

"Sometimes it's pregnancy or they just don't like school. Or they got booted out of school. Some of them are emancipated at a very young age," Ashmead says.

That's the case with Maria Dozier. Originally from Las Cruces, she became pregnant in high school and wasn't able to graduate. Decades later, she has returned to school at SFCC to get her high school equivalency and earn a certificate in early childhood education through the I-BEST program.

"My family was dirt poor, very little education," Dozier tells SFR. "I got pregnant my senior year and it wasn't accepted back then. I ended up dropping out because I got kicked out of the house and ended up getting a job at Burger King."

Dozier has now passed the high school equivalency test and after finishing her certification, hopes to get her bachelor's degree at the University of New Mexico.

Ashmead believes that the HSE, ESL and trade programs are an important part of the Santa Fe County and New Mexico economies, as well as the community overall.

Despite recent increases in four-year high school graduation rates, New Mexico still lags behind the national average, which was 84.6% in 2017.

According to the New Mexico Public Education Department, between May 2017 and May 2018, Santa Fe High School's four-year graduation rate was 75.3% and Capital High School's rate was 72.6%.

Literacy in New Mexico is also low. According to the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy, 20% of New Mexicans age 16 and older have literacy skills at level 1, the lowest on a scale of 1 to 5. Individuals at level 1, for example, have difficulty locating simple information in a news article or applying basic math to determine the total on a sales receipt.

SFCC's programs are putting a small but steady dent in the low high school graduation and literacy rates in New Mexico. In academic year 2017-2018 Adult Continuing Education (ACE) programs served 563 students total and 60 I-BEST students. In academic year 2018-2019, ACE served 441 students and 55 I-BEST students. The ESL program alone serves about 400 students each semester.

Enrollment has dropped "significantly" because of the strong economy, says Kristen Krell, manager of the Academic Career Education Department at SFCC.

"That's the case across the state and country for school in general," Krell says. "When the economy is strong, enrollment in community college is down because people have jobs."