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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Adults who want to go back to school have discouraging odds. They juggle grown-up responsibilities, there are long waiting lists for classes, and often there seems to be little connection between what they learn from books and lectures and the skills they might need to get a job. But a program in Washington state has been so successful in getting adult students into the workforce, more than 20 other states are now working to implement it. The program is called Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training - better known as I-BEST. In the third part of our series on adult learners, Kavitha Cardoza from member station WAMU explains why it's so successful.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: A few years ago, the Washington state community college system realized it had a serious problem. They had too many people who wanted jobs and too many jobs unfilled.

LOUISA ERICKSON: And instead of hiding it and saying, wow, we're not doing a good job, we really exposed it and said, wow, we're not doing a good job.

CARDOZA: That's Louisa Erickson who helps run I-BEST programs.

ERICKSON: And asked the people doing the work what do you think we could do?

CARDOZA: What they did was create a program based on what employers needed students to know and then made sure that's what students were being taught. And to make sure the new program was effective - they used team teaching.

CANDY BENTEU: Look at how old she was. Does it say...

RACHEL ROGERS: Doesn't say how old, but how old do you think she is?

CARDOZA: Candy Benteu and Rachel Rogers teach a Child Development class at Green River Community College. Benteu teaches the academic content while Rogers teaches basic skills - reading, math, English. Having two teachers in the classroom at the same time helps provide these students with extra support.

BENTEU: I'm a much better teacher now.

CARDOZA: Benteu says in the past, when students nodded, she assumed they understood what she meant. But she's learned often they don't. They just don't want to seem stupid or if they're from a different country, they don't know it's OK to ask a question. So, Rogers plays what she calls the eye of the class. Give me an example.

BENTEU: Idioms.

ROGERS: Idioms. Candy would say these phrases: fly by the seat of your pants. And I would interrupt her and I'd say does that mean I'm throwing my pants up in the air and flying? And she would laugh and the students would laugh because that's what they're thinking. By my modeling that, it gives them permission that it is OK to ask questions, and that's the sign of an intelligent and a good student.

CARDOZA: Benteu and Rogers also role play appropriate workplace behavior, those soft skills such as how to work in a team, follow rules and show up on time that are critical to success. They may seem obvious, but are not.

ROGERS: Some of our students will dress very...

BENTEU: ...provocatively?

ROGERS: Yes. Just not what you'd want in a child care environment. We have lots of conversations about the way we dress and the way we smell. Too much perfume, too much incense, not enough deodorant.

CARDOZA: Students going through this program are pretty typical of what you'd find in any adult education class across the country. They've often dropped out of high school, have low levels of reading and math, many don't speak English fluently. Through this program, they can take college level courses and earn certificates in any of the almost 200 courses offered, from medical billing to welding to building maintenance. I-BEST programs teach students specific skills that employers value.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

CARDOZA: Students at Shoreline Community College have just finished the theory portion of an auto mechanics class, where they learned about the physics of manual transmissions. Then it's a quick change into overalls and the hands-on part begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR REVVING)

MARK HANKINS: Yeah, we still get to play with cars.

CARDOZA: This class isn't child's play though. Instructor Mark Hankins says students have to learn the complex systems of today's cars, so at the end of the program...

HANKINS: They can go out and do a brake job, they can do fluid replacement, they can do inspections. And those are the kind of jobs that there's a big need for.

CARDOZA: All I-BEST programs have to demonstrate that students can get jobs paying a living wage when they graduate. In most parts of Washington state, that's $13 an hour.

CJ FORZA: My brain just clicks with engines.

CARDOZA: That's CJ Forza. He dropped out of school in the 12th grade; he's now 31. He loves cars so much he works part-time in a mechanic shop already. Forza's now learning the why, not just the how, of repairs.

FORZA: Instead of just guessing at what it is, I'm more able to figure out, OK, this issue can be caused by this, this, or this.

CARDOZA: Like most adults here, Forza is juggling many responsibilities without much money to hold his life together. But he sticks it out because he can see exactly what the connection is between this class and his career. At the end of one year, Forza will have a certificate in general auto mechanics and will see his pay jump from $10 an hour to $15.

FORZA: I want to be the breadwinner of my family. I have a three-year-old daughter that I need to raise. I want a career, not a job.

CARDOZA: Instructor Mark Hankins says this program really does make a difference.

HANKINS: I have a student that is now a general manager of a dealership and I'm sure he's making two or three times more salary than I am right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHING)

CARDOZA: It can take years before adults in typical adult education programs can take college courses. But what makes I-BEST unusual is that it shortens that time by bypassing the GED exam completely. Students in a Washington state community college program who earn an Associate's degree, can receive a high school diploma retroactively. Louisa Erickson, who helps run I-BEST, says when people talk about the program's success, they often focus on the numbers and the model and the research. But at its heart, she says, I-BEST is about giving people another chance.

ERICKSON: A lot of people will say, well, why can't they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps? But not everybody has bootstraps or even boots.

CARDOZA: She says if we can create opportunities to get more people educated and into the workforce, why shouldn't we? For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.

SIMON: And Monday on NPR and WBUR's HERE AND NOW, we'll look at how the struggles of adults with limited skills affect all of us.

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