Teaching under the radar

Minneapolis Public Schools’ Adult Diploma Program expands older students’ horizons

They come from Somalia, Vietnam, New Jersey, the city’s North Side. The oldest is in her 80s. The youngest is 18.

All of them are in high school together through the little-known Adult Diploma Program offered by Minneapolis Public Schools.

For the 10-20 students who graduate from the program each year, their diploma can be a self-esteem boost, a shot at a better job or a ticket to postsecondary education. But science teacher Mary Ellen Doherty said too few people realize the option exists.

“The people who need these services don’t know about it unless they talk to somebody else who knows about us,” Doherty said.

Housed in the Lehmann Education Center on West Lake Street – the same building where many people take the General Educational Development (GED) test – the Adult Diploma Program is not the same as a GED.

“The GED is more individualized,” explained Carlye Peterson, manager of Adult Basic Education for the school district. Instead of studying for the series of GED tests, students in the Adult Diploma Program take high school-level courses in a classroom setting.

Peterson said the group setting benefits English-language learners, who make up about half the students at any given time. All students also get a broader educational experience than they would by simply taking the GED, she added.

The program’s three full-time teachers work with classes that average about 10 students, often adjusting class schedules to meet real-world


“Because they are adults and they have families and jobs outside of this, we try to be as flexible as we can but still provide the structure they need and the motivation,” Doherty said.

Like all Minnesota high school students, the adults in the program must pass state-required reading and math tests to graduate.

“That’s how we maintain a level of rigor,” Peterson explained.

Doherty said she treasures the visits from former students, who sometimes stop in to talk about a new job or life in college.

“I wouldn’t continue to do it if I didn’t feel it was making a difference,” she said.

The stories of the following three students, all planning to graduate this spring, illustrate the diversity of Minneapolis Public Schools’ Adult Diploma Program:

Rob Madej, 18

Rob Madej moved to Apple Valley from Morris Plains, N.J., when his father took a new job in Minnesota.

That was in December, six months after the Parsippany Hills High School class of 2006 earned their diplomas. Madej wasn’t among them.

His senior year was disrupted by 25 days spent in an inpatient program for drug and alcohol abuse. The time out of class left him three credits short of graduation.

“I finished everything that they sent over to me, but when I got back to school, there were assignments missing that just got lost in the mail or something,” he said. “It was enough to just throw me off [those] three


Shortly after arriving in Minnesota, Madej contacted Minneapolis’ Adult Basic Education program and spoke with a counselor about earning a GED.

“I figured that, just to get on with my life, I would eventually have to go college,” he said.

The counselor told Madej he could study for the GED tests and potentially pass them within weeks. But the teenager said that seemed like “the easy way out.”

“Personally, I would rather just know that I completed a high school diploma program,” he said.

Madej has attended the Adult Diploma Program full-time since January. For the most part, it’s just like regular high school but with fewer periods and smaller classes, he said.

“(It was) a little depressing at first, coming here, just because I really didn’t want to come back to all this, the homework and everything – especially after I had that whole summer off,” he said. “But, it’s about time I just buckled down and got this all done.”

Lasondra Gosa, 35

Lasondra Gosa will have spent about five years trying to earn her high school diploma when she graduates this spring.

Gosa, 35, went in fits and starts, taking two or three classes at a time.

“I had to work,” she explained. “And kids, of course.”

Last spring, Gosa got the emotional boost she needed to finally finish. It came when she watched her oldest daughter, Lativia, accept her high school diploma.

“It made me get more encouraged when I saw my daughter walk across the stage,” Gosa said. “I’d never been to a high school diploma (ceremony) because I never finished high school, so it was really emotional for me to see my daughter graduate.”

Gosa became a mother while still in high school, at age 16. She attended an alternative high school while pregnant, and hoped to stay in that school even after she had Lativia.

“They put me back in regular high school, and I just wasn’t fitting in,” she said. “I decided to not go and stay[ed] home with my baby.”

After more than a decade out of school, Gosa began studying for her GED. But it was a struggle.

“First of all, I’m really nervous when it comes to tests,” she said.

All that time spent outside of the classroom made things worse, she added.

Still, Gosa, who now has four children, would not give up on her


“I really wanted to be a role model for my kids and let them know education was important,” she said. “I also wanted to be a nurse, an RN, which I knew I couldn’t do if I didn’t have my high school diploma.”

In April, Gosa was only about a month away from that diploma.

“I’m happy,” she said. “It felt like it was taking me forever.

“I’m looking forward to the day I can just walk across that stage.”

Abdirashid Ali, 23

With about a month of classes left to earn his high school diploma, Abdirashid Ali was already looking beyond graduation day.

“Some people, they just want to get only a diploma and get a job,” the 23-year-old Somali immigrant said. “But that’s not my goal. My goal is beyond that.”

Ali’s goal is way beyond even the bachelor’s degree he plans to start work on this fall.

“I’m thinking I’m going to medical school, but we’ll see,” he said. “One day, if I can get this kind of degree, I’ll go back and help my people.”

Ali painted a bleak picture of health care in his native country.

“Usually, still, they use traditional treatment,” he said. “They can’t afford, or even don’t have, any kind of technology.”

Lacking many of the medications and therapies commonly administered in the United States, even minor ailments can be deadly, he said.

“The condition is so bad,” he said. “People, they might die with a tiny, tiny thing.”

In the three years since he arrived in the United States, Ali has demonstrated the tenacity he’ll need to earn his white lab coat.

“The first year, I was just struggling, getting a car and getting a job,” Ali said.

The job hunt was complicated by Ali’s limited English language skills. But Ali said studying alongside other immigrants in the Adult High School Diploma Program helped him quickly improve.

He now works in customer service at a Menards home improvement store. If all goes well, he’ll be back in school full-time this fall at Minneapolis Community and Technical


“Nothing can stop me,” he insisted. “My priority is school first.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4391.