2012-12-21 / People


Resident proves it’s never too late to get diploma
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Joe O’Neill, 54, of South Portland, dropped out of school after he was held back three times in eighth grade in Yonkers, N.Y. (Jack Flagler photo) Joe O’Neill, 54, of South Portland, dropped out of school after he was held back three times in eighth grade in Yonkers, N.Y. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – When Joe O’Neill was a fourth grader in Yonkers, N.Y., he said teachers put his and another student’s desk in the coat room. It wasn’t that O’Neill, a South Portland resident, was necessarily a trouble maker. He just had a hard time keeping up.

Today, O’Neill would likely receive some added attention to help him work his way through school. But in an inner city school system in the 1960s and 1970s, O’Neill said he was just passed from one grade to the next without any questions asked until he hit eighth grade.

“In eighth grade I was left back one year after another. It was like my third year in the eighth grade, so I hit 16 and I signed myself out,” O’Neill, 54, said.

“I guess they just figured ‘let him go.’ My opinion is, I was never kept back when I should have been kept back. I was just passed along,” he said.

O”Neill didn’t step foot in a school again for decades. He “lied a lot” about his education to get work, including a job as a cook at the maximum security Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, N.Y. Anyone employed by the state of New York is required to have a high school diploma, O’Neill said, but in those years, his credentials weren’t checked.

However, O’Neill decided in September 2011 he wanted to earn his General Educational Development (GED) diploma and entered in South Portland’s GED program. He breezed through the first three of the five tests: reading, science and social studies. But math gave him some trouble, and his confidence was low.

“I said, ‘I haven’t been in school since I was 15 years old. There’s no way I can pass this stuff,’” O’Neill said.

“He had no confidence. Zero,” added David Brenner, adult education coordinator for the South Portland School Department.

But O’Neill never considered giving up, said his math teacher, Drew McNeely, who teaches statistics and precalculus to high school students during the day.

“He really set his mind to doing it. He had a great spirit about wanting to learn new things, grow with it and not being frustrated by it,” McNeely said. “I had confidence all along he’d ride it out.”

The minimum score to pass a GED test is 410. A student also must average 450 among all five tests. O’Neill’s average was high because of good scores in the first three tests. But the first two times O’Neill took the math test, he scored a 400, Brenner said, one question below the minimum.

On the third try for math, however, O’Neill scored a 440. Now, he’s moving on to his final subject, writing.

O’Neill has worked toward his GED certificate for 14 months. But at the end of next year, students like him may have to start over. Gail Senese, the state director of Adult Education and Family Literacy, said Maine will move the pencil and paper tests online and change the questions, which means any student that has passed some but not all of the five tests will have to begin again.

Because of that change, Senese said the state is starting a “close out campaign” to get the word out about the changes. That campaign, she said, will be helped by the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) for Maine adults to become aware of the changes and receive the additional training they need. In addition to community outreach, the state will work to provide students additional training to prepare for a career after they receive a GED diploma.

The changes to the test also may include a cost. Currently, Maine is one of three states that appropriates money from the Legislature so the GED test can be offered free of charge to test-takers, but Senese said the price of the test in 2014 will likely be triple the amount currently appropriated by the government. “We don’t know how we can keep it free for our test takers,” Senese said. “In other states they pass down the cost for the test takers,” she added, but Maine would like to avoid that.

The state is looking at alternative assessments in hopes it can avoid charging. Senese said a fee would likely limit both participation and preparedness.

The looming uncertainty may provide those who don’t know if they want to enroll in a GED program with added motivation this year. O’Neill said initially, he had some concerns the other students would wonder what a 54-year-old student was doing in class. But he encouraged anyone to take a chance.

“If anybody’s out there that’s afraid to do it, it’s not too difficult,” O’Neill said. “You’re never too old to do it. If you’re 50 or 60 and you don’t have it, why not just get it for your own satisfaction?”

About the GED

South Portland Adult Education will offer a “Free GED Saturday” 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19 at the South Portland High School library. Free math, reading and writing GED pre-tests will be offered. Afterwards, adult education staff will make recommendations to either start taking tests or to enroll in courses. The national GED test is changing to an online format in 2014. For more information, email adulted@spsd.org or call 756-2169.

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