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High School Equivalency Program loses funding

PULLMAN — After 42 years of helping educate migrant workers and their children, the High School Equivalency Program based at Washington State University has lost federal funding.

The program, known as HEP, prepared students to pass the GED (General Educational Development) tests, which certified they had high-school level academic skills. HEP was the oldest program of its kind funded by the U.S. Office of Migrant Education, involved one of WSU’s longest-running federal grants, and was the university’s first program for minorities. Over the years, some 3,700 students enrolled in HEP, and most received their GEDs. Eighty percent were Hispanic—most from Central Washington—and 20 percent were Native American.

When the grant wasn’t renewed this summer, six faculty and staff members lost their jobs.

While the loss of funding means HEP cannot accept students in 2009-2010, the College of Education will re-apply next spring in hopes of accepting students in 2010, said Phyllis Erdman, interim dean of the college.

“We hope that we can revive the program, making it even stronger and more closely aligned with our academic programs,” she said.

Erdman noted that HEP has operated independently of the College of Education, although it was also housed in Cleveland Hall and provided education majors with experience in bilingual tutoring.

The grants are given for five-year cycles. HEP had requested $2.53 million to operate from 2009 to 2014, said program director Dennis Warner. Sixteen grants were awarded nationwide, he said.

“We don’t know how many applied or how they scored,” Warner said, adding that he was optimistic about landing a grant next year. “For one thing, the Obama administration has requested $2.5 million more for migrant education in 2010, while there was a cutback in 2009.”

One reason the WSU program may have been rejected was its per-student cost of $6,300 for each eight-week session. That cost is higher than in other programs, reflecting the fact that WSU had the country’s only fully residential program. In 1967, when the first HEP grants were awarded, students always stayed on the campuses of the sponsoring colleges. By 2009, all programs except the one at WSU were either commuter-based, or had only a few residential slots.

While the number of students who want a residential program has been dropping, Warner said, there is a strong academic advantage to experiencing campus life. For many students, it was their first exposure to higher education.

“It’s really exciting to see people begin to think of themselves as belonging on a college campus,” Warner said.

Alejandro Vergara was a high school dropout when he entered the program in 1989. Now dean of students for the Manson, Wash., school district, Vergara called HEP’s closure a catastrophic loss for migrant workers like himself who “were motivated and catapulted to higher education” by attending HEP.

“We were given the opportunity to join activity groups, to go to the gym and work out,” said Vergara. He recalled attending a presentation that showed the relationship between advanced education and financial success. “I said, ‘I want some of that.’”

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