Richard Harris is one of the many adults who have visited the HWDSB Assessment Centre on their way to finally getting their secondary school diploma.
By ROB FAULKNER, HWDSB Staff
Sometimes, at a workplace, there are unfamiliar rooms, or offices you rarely visit, or doors and hallways you’ve never taken. For Education Centre staff, the Assessment Centre can be that kind of place. Tucked into the southwest corner of 100 Main St. W., its layout hints it was once used for something else.
But what is it now?
“This used to be the Board of Education library,” Principal of Equity Gail Belisario explains as we tour the circular room ringed by tall and narrow windows and work stations. Hamilton teachers would visit, to find curriculum documents. Now, however, it’s a place where futures can change.
On the cusp of a new school year, the centre is busy, often with new Canadian students having their English skills assessed at the elementary and secondary levels. Yet the centre has a special role for adults, who come to see if they can finally earn their Ontario Secondary School Diploma.
“When you don’t have an education, you start to believe that you are not bright,” says former client Richard Harris. “You lack self-esteem. You start to see people around you doing things and deciding what they want to do, but you think to yourself, ‘That’s not for me.’ You feel trapped.”
Now age 55, Harris came to the Assessment Centre with just a Grade 8 education. Growing up in Toronto, his parents divorced, his mother struggled, and Harris eventually found himself without a home to return to. He got an entry-level job in a print shop, married young, had kids, and devoted more than three decades to a profession he hated.
“I didn’t go back to school because I was told that if I did the police would come for me and I would end up in children’s aid,” said Harris, who worked 37 years as a printer in a declining industry. He left school out of necessity but embraced the idea that he couldn’t do the work, that he was inadequate.
Life has changed since then, he says.
He learned online about academic and career training, and how he would receive support if he stayed in a full-time education program. He upgraded his elementary learning at St. Charles Adult & Continuing Education Centre; he came to the Assessment Centre to take tests, to learn more about his credit options, and carrying some heavy emotional baggage.
“When they start the assessment, you see adults being scared and very anxious because they have not had a great experience with education, and they left,” says Katherine Joss, a credit assessor who worked with Harris. “Life happened and they had more important things happening in their life. But they come here and they are honoured.”
The Assessment Centre, which also stores transcripts, can tell a client which Grade 9 or 10 credits they lack and offer them tests to grant the credits that are missing. Harris, who had zero credits, amazed himself with each test he passed; but after finishing a test, he would duck out before marking because he was convinced that he had failed. It was like the day, as a teen, that he tried to walk back into a Toronto-area high school, only to immediately exit the side door.
As Harris worked through the process to upgrade his Grade 9 and 10 education at the Assessment Centre, he was also surprised to learn that his life experience with work and parenting could cover many of his missing Grade 11 and 12 credits. Yes, he had managed money; he had supervised people; he had raised a family. (In total, prior learning can count for up to 26 of 30 OSSD course credits. Prior learning cannot grant Grade 12 English or the Ontario Literacy Course.)
“Most adult students have been away from education for a long time,” explains Joss, noting that the centre sees 1,000 adults a year. “But they have learned things and they know things. That’s called Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR).”
Community and Continuing Education at Red Hill oversees adult credit acquisition, through independent study, e-learning, classroom learning and more. This is where Harris took Grade 12 English, math and biology; he took the Ontario Literacy Course through summer school at Westdale secondary.
“Math was truly six weeks of hell. But I got through it. And you need that, every student needs that, being able to face a challenge and overcome it. You need that in life because no one in the outside world is going to hold your hand,” Harris said.
Because non-graduates can be a vulnerable population, the Assessment Centre reaches out to Ontario Works, Living Rock, the Adult Basic Education Association, and other social agencies. They spread the word about what they do, and share the message that a high school diploma is more possible than most adults believe.
“People will come in because they are trying to get a job, or they are on Ontario Works, but more than half of our clients are also parents,” says Joss, noting how emotional Continuing Education's bi-annual graduation ceremony is for clients. “Parents will tell us: I’m not doing this for me… I have to do this for my kids.”
For Harris, graduating with an OSSD in January 2009 changed everything: his friends who may not have understood his focus, his ties with his daughter who was a great supporter, his career and, especially, how he feels about himself. He attended Everest College and now works as a medical lab technician at a downtown medical clinic.
He has options, he says. He doesn't need to make up stories, or be evasive, when someone asks to see his high school transcript.
“The academic stuff is just a small part of what this is all about. The emotional side is huge,” says Harris, who explains how difficult it was for him to hold back tears when he delivered a short speech at his graduation ceremony which came, more than 30 years late. “It really builds you up as a person. You are finally in the game.”
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