Constance Warren remembers cringing when she saw the results of her math and reading tests seven years ago. “I did horrible. It was embarrassing,” she said.
At the time, in 2008, Warren was 21 years old and reading at a third-grade level. Her math scores were even worse.
So she hit the books. Typically, she would spend half of her day studying and half at her job as a cashier at the Rouses Supermarket on Carrollton Avenue.
If she worked days at the store, she would take the bus afterward to the Youth Empowerment Project’s educational office on South Broad Street. When she had a night shift, she would spend the day at YEP in her cashier’s uniform.
Today, high school equivalency diploma in hand, Warren is attending Delgado Community College. It is a journey that experts say many more low-skilled adults in New Orleans will have to take to keep up with an economy that places an ever-increasing premium on education.
While the debate over education and careers in New Orleans has focused mainly on reforming public schools, researchers say the city can work toward a better-educated workforce without having to wait for the next generation of youngsters to come along, in part by focusing on adults like Warren.
“Adult education is critical, because the improvements in K-12 schools will take decades to supply a new workforce,” said Allison Plyer, director of the Data Center. A decade from now, today’s adult workers will still make up two-thirds of the labor pool, even if New Orleans sees “a significant influx of young professionals,” Plyer said.
Data from the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy show that 40 percent of area adults read at a fifth-grade level or below, and they suffer from higher unemployment because they qualify for only 38 percent of area jobs.
Women with low literacy levels are particularly disadvantaged because of the wage gap: Men earn more than women, regardless of literacy levels.
Ultimately, Warren wanted to move beyond cashier’s wages to nursing, a career she had dreamed of since middle school. Yet sometimes, she couldn’t believe how far behind she’d fallen. “I was 21 years old, but I was sitting there doing basic addition and subtraction,” she said.
She entered the YEP program at a disadvantage. Younger students like her are more likely to leave without finishing, and so are students who begin as far behind as she was.
But for six years, she plugged away, with few absences. “I don’t remember missing days,” she said. “I didn’t want to let myself down.”
Warren’s persistence set her apart, said instructor Michele Seymour, one of many YEP tutors who worked one-on-one with Warren as she prepared for the GED exam, the high-school equivalency credential. “I’ve never met anyone who worked so hard to accomplish her goals,” said Seymour, who watched tearfully in 2013 as Warren failed a few crucial tests by narrow margins.
By that time, Warren had studied for five years, and a GED seemed close enough to picture. “Constance told me, ‘I am going to graduate. And when I graduate, I’m going to wear this and I’m going to do my hair this way,’ ” Seymour recalled.
As a child, Warren was never engaged in the classroom. “I never did care about school at all,” she said. Whenever it was time for math — her worst subject — she’d put her head down on her desk.
No one checked her grades or looked at her report cards, she said.
“It was boring,” she said. “I just didn’t pay attention to a lot of stuff.”
A National Academy of Sciences report, “Understanding Dropouts,” says that most students who leave school display “chronic disengagement” for years beforehand. Often, it notes, students at risk of dropping out are “inattentive, exert little effort, do not complete tasks and claim to be bored.”
Hurricane Katrina set Warren back as well. Though already overage, she registered for classes at Alcee Fortier High School in the fall of 2005. Her first day was supposed to be Aug. 29 — the day the storm hit.
After evacuating, she lived in different parts of Texas and Arkansas and never attended school steadily again. It would be three years before she cracked a book. “But I can’t blame Katrina,” she said. “I just didn’t realize education was important until I was 21.”
The change in her attitude started when she landed a job at Café Reconcile, where she heard about adult education for the first time. Though she had expressed reservations about school, Reconcile’s staff encouraged her, she said, and when she decided to move on, they helped her find a job at the Louisiana Green Corps. There, in addition to wages, she earned vouchers that she could use toward college.
“Suddenly, I was surrounded by people talking about education,” she said. “So I thought it was time to make some changes in my life.”
She enrolled in the YEP adult education program NOPLAY — New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth. “I don’t know how long I went,” she said. “I just kept going.”
Last June, at long last, Warren passed four of the five sections of Louisiana’s GED test: reading, writing, social studies and science. Only math, her nemesis, remained, and she passed that during a retest.
She will formally receive her certificate during the city’s annual GED graduation in May. But last summer, as soon as she heard that she’d passed, Warren enrolled at Delgado.
Seymour, who coordinates college transitions for all YEP students, helped with all the paperwork and even bought her a backpack, calculator, highlighters, colored folders and other supplies.
Almost done with her first year of college, Warren still checks in often at the YEP offices, especially with Seymour, who showed Warren how to use the calendar in her phone to keep up with class schedules and how to study for a test in one class while doing assignments for another.
Warren now feels that she’s gotten into the groove of college life. Recently, she even purchased her own computer. “This semester, I’ve been doing real good,” she said.
This is a crucial time for Warren. Nationally, once students pass the GED, nearly half enroll in college. But fewer than 5 percent earn a degree. Most, 77 percent, drop out after one semester.
Warren said she’s already defied other odds. Of her mother’s four children, she is the only one to get a GED or a diploma. She may soon even master math: Last week, she almost aced a math test, getting a high B.
She had stayed up until the wee hours of the night studying for the exam and felt triumphant at the result.
“I’ve been dying to get here,” she said. “And I’m finally here.”