Up until two years ago, a high school diploma was the minimum educational credential required for a job at the University of Kansas Health System, which operates a sprawling network of hospital buildings and medical offices in the Kansas City region.
Once the system waived that requirement to meet workforce demands, administrators discovered a trove of motivated, hard-working adults who, for one reason or another, lacked the basic piece of paper required for advancement.
Editor’s note: Like many colleges across the country, Kansas City Kansas Community College is shifting all of its classes to a virtual format due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has extended its spring break and will resume classes on March 30.
Some were English language learners whose educational credentials in their home countries aren’t valid here. Others had left school before they could cross a stage with a diploma in hand.
Some, like Kathy Richardson, had attempted unsuccessfully over the years to earn the equivalent of a high school degree. The last time she tried, at age 61, she abandoned the quest when her father fell ill and died, said Richardson, who works as a housekeeper at the health system’s main hospital campus.
Richardson, now 67, is trying again. This time, her employer and a local community college have teamed up to remove many of the barriers that traditionally have stopped adults from obtaining high school equivalency credentials — like cost, transportation and conflicts with work schedules.
Four days a week, Richardson interrupts her routine duties to report to a conference room on the health system’s campus. With help from two instructors from nearby Kansas City Kansas Community College, she and other classmates spend two hours studying for the tests they must pass to earn their GED certificates.
While in school, they are also on the clock. The hospital system pays their hourly rate while they attend classes. With help from businesses and philanthropic sponsors from around Kansas City, it also pays their tuition and fees and provides laptops, textbooks and everything they need to be successful.
“I think it’s fantastic that they care enough for their employees to want to help us like this,” Richardson said. “I’m not going to stop until I get that cap and gown.”
Jeff Novorr, the health system’s vice president of support services, said administrators approached KCKCC as part of an effort to retain employees in environmental services, food services and other support-level jobs. Although the health system hired applicants without a high school credential, they’ll need one to qualify for a promotion or other opportunities.
“We really want to offer our employees a career path as opposed to just a job,” Novorr said.
An evolving program
KCKCC offers adult basic education and GED preparation at its main campus and other locations, but a business setting was something new, said Valerie Piercey, assistant director of adult education.
When the program, “Because We Care,” started in January 2019, instructors commuted between the community college and the hospital to teach classes. Now, teachers Pam Lefeber and Chris Bosserman report to work directly at the hospital.
They supervise classes Mondays through Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and again from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. for evening shift employees. They are available in between classes for “office hours,” where students can receive extra help and tutoring.
Lefeber said she loves the closer interaction with the students. “There are so many fantastic stories here,” she said.
Finding a way
Novorr said health system administrators weren’t sure what to expect when they first advertised the program to employees.
“We really didn’t know how many would be interested, but we had 13 people sign up,” he said.
The health system now opens up the educational opportunity to new employees four times a year, Novorr said. Seven students have earned their GED credentials and 26 are currently in class. All seven graduates are still with the health system.
While the pass rate for high school equivalency exams nationally has been about 80 percent in recent years, many students who enroll in classes don’t get as far as the testing process. Some find the work too daunting. Others can’t find time to study, or attend enough classes.
Because We Care overcomes those barriers in several ways, Piercey said. Students can’t skip classes because the classes are part of their work duties. And employers can’t force them to choose between GED studies and their paycheck.
“Our managers have gone to extraordinary lengths to work around their schedules,” Novorr said.
Also, each student is paired with a mentor from the hospital’s leadership team. They check in regularly — every day, in some cases — mostly to talk about what’s going on in students’ lives and offer encouragement.
“The mentors tell me they may be getting more out of this than the students,” Novorr said.
A promising future
Norma Luna, a housekeeper and GED student, said she completed high school in Mexico 30 years ago. Over the years she’s worked many jobs, but has been turned away from others for lack of a U.S. high school credential.
Luna, 55, said her two adult sons are thrilled at the thought of her earning her GED. “They are proud of me and my husband is too,” she said.
Piercey said the program is working so well that KCKCC is looking to start similar partnerships with other businesses.
And Novorr said the classes, while initiated as a retention tool, have unexpectedly become a recruiting magnet as well.
“People come in for interviews,” he said, “and they’ll ask, ‘how soon can I get into class?’”