For Spring Williams, the day was about her mother. The 25-year-old Manassas resident never completed high school, but now she was getting the graduation ceremony she’d missed.
With Mayor Michelle Davis-Younger, Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-29th) and Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni at the Harris Pavilion in Old Town handing out certificates representing GEDs during the ceremony July 28, Williams cried when her name was called.
“I lost my mom three years ago. I never finished high school, so I felt like this would be something that she’ll be proud of,” she said. “Like, you know, ‘My daughter did it.’”
Williams and eight other GED recipients who participated in the ceremony were among the first group of 34 students who finished the city’s Graduate program, which allows Manassas residents to complete GED instruction and testing free of charge. The program is a partnership among the city’s Economic Development Authority, Virginia Career Works and SkillSource, a nonprofit career training company.
Students typically have to pay administrative and testing fees that can total around $150, a cost that the city thinks might keep some from pursuing their certificate. But starting last year, with the city’s contribution on top of federal and state money, the program is free, and those who pass the test receive $250 worth of gift certificates to Manassas restaurants and shops.
Intended to be the equivalent of a high school diploma for adults who didn’t finish high school, the GED is a requisite for many jobs and future career training programs. Williams hopes to continue her education and eventually become a social worker.
The eight-week program culminates in an online test. For Williams, the challenge was balancing her learning with that of her son, who was going through kindergarten virtually because of school closures at the time.
“My son was in online school, I had to maintain both. I think it influenced him to be like, ‘Let me go ahead and do my work too.’ You see mommy doing it, you gotta do it,” she said. “Hopefully [the future] holds something successful for me.”
The city’s 2020 strategic plan includes a goal of bringing the high school graduation rate in Manassas up to at least the regional average. At the time the plan was adopted last year, 81.3% of the city’s residents had a high school degree or higher, compared to 88.8% in Prince William County and 89% statewide.
The Graduate program is one way city officials hope to address that gap.
“You can graduate more people in your graduating class, but how do you reach the people who are past high school who may want to go back and get their diploma?” said Patrick Small, the city’s economic development director. “Whatever the reason you didn’t graduate, we want to help you do it now.”
When registration for the program opened, Small’s office sent mailers to every address in the city about the opportunity. A new cohort will start the program in August.
Another graduate, Yadhira Perez, wanted to set an example for her children, who joined her at Wednesday’s ceremony. A native of Mexico, she moved to Manassas about 15 years ago without a high school diploma.
Finding work without a high school degree or a GED, she said, was often challenging. She hopes job searches will be easier now. Eventually, she’s thinking about going to nursing school.
“I said, ‘Why not?’ I have three kids so I want to prove to them that I can do it so they can,” Perez said.
Perez said she never expected so much pomp and circumstance around her completion. But with graduation speakers, caps, gowns and catered food, it was the ceremony she never had.
“Today’s event celebrates the achievements of our graduates, and we honor their hard work,” Davis-Younger told those assembled. “Hopefully this is a big step in their life journey.”