Broward Libraries Graduate First Online High School Class

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by Caitlin McGlade, courtesy of the SunSentinel

Judith John dropped out of high school 20 years ago, but Thursday she stood before her classmates and family, clad in blue cap and gown, to celebrate meeting a milestone.

She and 20 others this year became the first class to graduate from Broward County (FL) Library. The program, piloted last year at 11 libraries in the state, offers scholarships to people like John to earn accredited high school diplomas through online coursework.

"This is great big world and it's waiting for you to conquer it," John told her colleagues at the graduation ceremony at the North Regional/Broward College Library. "And just in case you don't think so, take another look at your diploma and shout 'I did this!'"

Career Online High School was developed in 2012 to offer a second chance to drop-outs long removed from the education system and afraid to turn back. In 2014, it was adapted for public libraries by Gale, a division of Cengage Learning focused on libraries.

In Florida, it is being offered by libraries including North Miami Beach, Martin County and is expanding to 17 other systems, including the Boynton Beach City Library. More than 215 students have enrolled statewide, said Kristina Massari, spokesperson for Cengage.

The state-funded scholarship allows students to complete a program that would normally cost about $1,300. But the company partners with some companies such as Walmart and McDonald's to provide employees access as well.

The state has allotted Broward about 140 scholarships and the library has awarded all of them. But the system can request more, said Vonda Ward Bryant, the library's learning services coordinator.

Prospective students tend to have suffered several failures in school, had little support and also felt that what they were learning was not applicable to them, said Howard Liebman, co-founder of Smart Horizons Career Online Education, the Pensacola-based company that helped create the program.

So the program tackles each of those issues, he said. There is no failing: instead students may try until they pass courses. There is support: each student gets a personal coach who communicates with them frequently. And there is interest: the student selects a career track and starts the program by taking the courses that interest them most.

The program is designed to take about 18 months to complete. At the end, they receive an accredited diploma and career certificate.

So far, 60 people have graduated statewide through the library.  "It's not so easy to discipline yourself when you have to spend hours a day (on classes) when you have a job, children and other responsibilities," Ward Bryant said. "My hat goes off to them."

John lived that. She'd work until 2 a.m. on homework and then have to get up for work in the morning. But she knew she wanted a way out. She worked at a church for 10 years, for just 23 hours a week.  "I was barely supporting my children," she said. "I was the working poor."

Her son, too, was a major motivator. He just graduated from Broward College. Any time she thought maybe college wasn't for her, she said, he'd bug her to do her homework.

Now she is enrolled to go to Broward College in January and plans to continue to Florida International University or Florida Atlantic University to get a degree in psychology.