Opportunity Knocks in Berryville’s New Adult Education Center

By Claire Stuart

“Opportunity only knocks once”  is  a common saying, but it isn’t necessarily true.  Northern Shenandoah Valley Adult Education’s (AE) mission is to provide additional opportunities for people who might have missed the first knock.

It is a well-known fact that people who do not finish high school are at a disadvantage in the job market.  Less attention is focused on people who did graduate but are lacking in some skills that would allow them to get into college or get better jobs. They might be re-entering the job market after an absence or hoping to move into different fields. AE addresses both issues, offering General Education Development (GED) tests and classes to improve essential skills, as well as English as a Second Language (ESL). ESL is not available in Berryville.

In the immediate area, classes are held in Winchester and in Berryville’s new facility for AE, opened this year. An important goal of the program is to keep classes local so that people can get to them easily, since child care and transportation can present problems for some students.

Virginia’s AE program has been around since the 1990s, but three years ago it was reorganized into regional planning centers. The local region is associated with Lord Fairfax Community College.

“This is very helpful,” said Sharon Hetland, Regional AE Specialist, “because the program is not being tacked onto K-12 education but is a launching pad into work or college.”

She explains that the classes are held in the local communities while the placement screening tests and GED tests are held at Lord Fairfax. According to Hetland, approximately 1,000 area students go though the program every year, about half in ESL. Most of the other AE students are working for the GED. Kathryn Hamman teaches AE classes as well as ESL.

Hetland explained that the GED test has changed a lot in 2014. Now it is computer-based, so it is essential that the locations have the necessary technology. The new Berryville facility’s classroom/computer lab has enough up-to-date computers to accommodate all students. There is also an on-line program called GED Academy that students can work on in or out of class, and hours logged on are counted.

Hetland observed that many older students did not grow up with computers. It is important that they become digitally literate in order to navigate today’s workplaces. Computer skills needed for employment are integrated into classes.

There are four sections to the GED test: reasoning through language arts, science, social studies and math. All require extended written responses except math, and there is math involved in all of the other three categories. The science section is not just reading a paragraph and answering questions as on the old test. Now it requires some prior knowledge and familiarity with the vocabulary of the discipline.

“We teach critical thinking,” said Hamman.  She explained that they learn what is called evidence-based writing. “There is an essay required on the new GED. Students learn to compare different opinions or different documents, sometimes from different periods of time.”

Hamman explains that there is a learning plan for each student in class and that they are not working in workbooks. The students are grouped according to their ability and taught as groups, but lessons are individualized. “The teacher must be creative,” she said. “We work on students’ strengths and get them ready for at least one of the tests. We work on what’s most difficult—usually math.”

Says Hetland, “Students can be proud of passing the GED.”

Persons who do have high school diplomas but are deficient in skills such as math or writing needed for jobs or to enter college can take a placement test at Lord Fairfax. The Test of Adult Basic Education will access their levels in math, reading and language and then they will be referred to AE.

There are two transitional coaches that are part of the program. One is for working toward employment and one is just for transition to college.  They are available for all students.

AE students must be 18 years old or older, and people in a class could range in age from 18 to 60 and over.  Hetland noted that adult students generally have family and/or work pressures on their time, and some are forced to “stop out.”

“We don’t say ‘drop out,’” says Hetland. “We make it easy for them to return to the program. But we make it clear that they can’t be successful in the program if they don’t attend classes consistently. We help adults take responsibility for learning. Whatever gave you difficulty in high school, you will still need to address.”

The AE program is not on the public school calendar. Enrollment is not closed, and students are accepted on an ongoing basis. Students attend class twice weekly for a total of five to six hours.

All of the teaching spaces are borrowed, said Hetland. All school districts are mandated partners in the AE program, and they pay allocated amounts. Every school district’s allocation is decided by census figures.

Financial assistance is available for the GED. Hetland explains that AE  students are given free vouchers to take the practice test, which would cost $24 if they had to pay for it.  If the practice test shows that they are ready to take their GED, they get a voucher for $120, the normal cost of the test.


The new AE facility is in the Clarke County Public Schools Administration Building in the old Berryville Primary School 317 West Main Street, lower level. Classes meet Tuesday and Thursday 5:00-7:30pm, For information, call 1-800-435-5945 or visit www.needmyged.org.