Literacy: Never too late


Jorge De Jesus, 59, is studying for a high school equivalency diploma at Henry Street Settlement. Photo: Brian Demo

The Henry Street Settlement’s adult program can change lives


By Brian Demo



The subject was Galileo. About a dozen students, young and older adults, read two paragraphs on the Italian astronomer and answered questions. What was the main idea of the passage? What’s a statement of fact, and what’s an opinion? There was a tangent: How did Galileo die? Some students took their time to read and speak, while others responded quickly. Lisa Diomande, their friendly, conversational teacher, kept pushing the discussion.

Diomande is the High School Equivalency (HSE) program coordinator at the Henry Street Settlement’s Adult Literacy Program, where she teaches reading, writing, and social studies. The HSE program prepares students for the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC), which replaced the familiar General Educational Development (GED) test in New York State in 2014.. Diomande draws from living in Harlem and teaching English as a second language (ESL) at the YMCA there. “You have natives and immigrants who don’t have their high school diplomas,” she said. “I like teaching ESL, but I saw a greater need for high school diplomas — a broader and deeper need.” Her motivation is to help people become “active learners.” Strong reading and critical thinking skills, she said, help adults in every aspect of their day-to-day lives.

A Diploma Makes a Difference

The Henry Street program has three levels: HSE, for the students most ready to take the TASC; Pre-HSE; and Adult Basic Education (ABE), for students who need the most preparation. An HSE diploma carries significant weight. It can mean more job opportunities and higher earnings. According to 2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with high school diplomas was 4.1 percent, compared to 5.6 percent for those without. The same data also showed a nearly $200 difference in median weekly earnings between the two groups — $730 versus $553.

However, HSE stats are not great in New York. In a March 2017 report, the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) — a nonpartisan policy organization — found that New York State had a 60 percent GED pass-rate in 2010, compared to a national average of 73 percent. And according to a 2015 study of the TASC, the New York State pass-rate for the new test was just under 52 percent. For that same year, CUF reported that New York City’s TASC pass-rate was 46 percent.

CUF says the New York State Education Department is working to improve those numbers by training HSE instructors to prepare students with more rigorous prep curriculums, working with the TASC vendor to better match test questions with graduation requirements, and offering more support for test centers.

The good news is that HSE prep programs, like those offered by Henry Street, can improve students’ chances of passing the TASC. CUF reported in 2015 that test-takers from prep-courses had a TASC pass-rate of 65 percent, compared to 45 percent for those who did not take a prep course.

An Artist and Future Chef

Gabriel Sarmiento, 19, was among the students discussing Galileo in Diomande’s three-hour night-class. Sarmiento, who started in Pre-HSE last November and moved up to HSE, said he spent about half-a-year at school after what should have been his senior year in high school, but never earned enough credits to graduate and dropped out. Now in HSE prep, “I give more time and priority to school because I’m trying to go to college,” he said.

Sarmiento house-hops and currently lives in the Bronx. He studies and works multiple jobs. In addition to baby-sitting, he works for Postmates and DoorDash, and leaves the city on Fridays for Long Island, where he records music under his artist name, Briel. Along with his music goals, Sarmiento wants to become a chef and has enrolled in a culinary training program to get his meat handler’s license. He knows that passing the TASC could mean less house-hopping and a steadier work schedule, all equating to less stress.

On a Better Path

Jorge De Jesus, 59, has been in the ABE level since last October. He said he was nearly illiterate into his young-adult years. “When I was young, I had a learning disability,” he said. “The kids [at school] used to laugh at me. I used to fight a lot.”

De Jesus explained how he dropped out of junior high school and began to use drugs. “I was caught up using cocaine and dust,” he said. He robbed small markets, and it caught up with him, he said. He served a 15-year sentence for armed robbery, he said, eventually followed by another sentence of 10 years.

He’s on a better path now, he said. “I’ve been sober for 30-35 years.” On weekdays, he attends HSE prep classes and often exercises. Although he lives in midtown Manhattan, he volunteers at a Christian church in the Bronx, where he does painting and repair work.“I would love to become a counselor,” De Jesus said. “I would also like to become a pastor.”

For now, De Jesus wants to prove to others, and himself, that he can pass the TASC. “I wanted to find out how to read and write, and get a GED so my family can see me and be proud of me,” he said. He enjoys making use of his improved reading and writing skills, which have even made subway rides more interesting. He now spends time underground scanning for the nearest sign, reading it, and moving on to the next.