Through Adult Education Services, Students Get Another Chance to Learn

© Western New Mexico University

Adult Education Services is not a well-known part of the educational offerings at WNMU, but Adult Education Services Director Colton Bjerke hopes to change that.

Bjerke, who joined the university in 2022, is working to increase public awareness of the services offered, as well as to expand services in areas of southwest New Mexico that are underserved.

Bjerke explained that his office provides three different programs. “The most well-known one is the high school equivalency, which is preparing students to succeed on the GED or HiSET,” he said,

“The second program for us is the Adult Basic Education program, which helps students develop basic literacy skills and basic numeracy skills, so they can then be successful in the more challenging classes [of the high school equivalency courses].” In both of these programs together, Adult Education Services has 72 students enrolled.

The third program is English as a Second Language (ESL), which WNMU offers at both its Silver City and Deming locations. There are currently 21 students in the ESL program, with growing demand. This term, the Silver City section of ESL is at capacity and the Deming section is about 75%.

“One of the biggest benefits of studying ESL,” said Bjerke, “is that, if the potential student is a parent, and their child is to going to school in the public school system, knowing more English will help them to better support their children.”

Bjerke said that his office has made the process of enrolling in Adult Education as straightforward as possible. After filling out the online application, he said, students typically sit down one-on-one with a program coordinator to have an orientation and goal-setting session. “After they have completed that, we have them do a pre-assessment, which measures their ability in reading, language and math. We use those scores to assess which level in which to place them,” said Bjerke, adding, “The ESL program uses a similar process, but we use a different test to assess their English language proficiency.”

Bjerke noted that while adult education services are important across the country, in New Mexico, there is a great need for programs like the one he directs. “If you look at New Mexico overall as a state, you find that our high school graduation rates are some of the lowest in the country. We also have a greater likelihood than many other states to have adults who have completed high school in another country, which is not always recognized in the U.S.”

Asked about the demographics of the students in the programs, Bjerke said, “We serve students who are 16 years and older, and they bring a myriad of different life experiences.”

Many students, he said, “are likely working, they likely have children or have elders that they need to care for, and transportation can be an issue for many of our students, too.”

“One of the things we see with our students,” said Bjerke, “is that their lifecycle for completing their high school equivalency is not a linear path. They come in with the best of intentions, planning to achieve this goal swiftly, and then life happens. So, it is not uncommon for a student to complete one five-week session, take the following five weeks to address other life concerns, and then return to the program.”

The younger students seeking adult education opportunities bring their own set of challenges. “Many of them may not be facing some of the life burdens that the older students are carrying,” said Bjerke, “but they are coming in with negative experiences in the K-12 system. For one reason or the other, that was not the environment for them, so we have a unique opportunity with those students to help them achieve their goals but also to help them learn what it means to be an adult. We are here to support you, and we will guide you through this process, but ultimately, if you want to accomplish this goal, you need to put in the hours, you need to go to class.”

“When you look at the students that were not able to complete [their schooling] in a K-12 setting,” Bjerke said, “some of the more common reasons are disabilities, pregnancy and behavioral issues. And a lot of students in adult education classes were high achievers that were understimulated and lost their motivation.”

“We do our best to welcome every student, create a positive environment, and really clarify when they are starting with us what the expectations are and how they will see success,” he said.

Bjerke noted that his office serves a vast area of southern New Mexico, including not just Grant County, but also Luna, Hidalgo, Catron and Sierra counties. “Historically,” he noted, “our program always has had opportunity to do more for those underserved communities in Hidalgo, Catron and Sierra counties, as well as the outlying communities in Grant and Luna. In October, we started providing classes specifically to students in Columbus over Zoom that are Spanish-based. Students have the choice when they take the GED or HiSET to take it either in English or in Spanish, so we are teaching content in the language they are most comfortable with. We are also trying to launch similar courses to Arrey and Truth or Consequences. We are trying to make sure that all students who need the program in our service area can tap into it.”

Bjerke said he is proud of the work his team has been doing to reach and educate adult learners in the program. “We have recently seen the highest measurable student outcomes in at least the last ten years,” he noted, “So the work we are doing in the classroom is working, and our students are actually staying in there to see those gains and to continue to make progress toward their goals.”

For each of the students that completes the high school equivalency program or learns ESL, he added, “it means that they now have the opportunity to make a greater impact for their family and their community, and that is what we are here for. We are trying to lift each of our students to more opportunities, whether that be finding better employment, or getting into a trade program or attending university. We are trying to open the door for our students, because for many of them it feels like every door they have come to has been closed.”


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