Krista Csapo works during the day as a middle school teacher in Delran, but the Bordentown resident spends evenings in what she says is “probably the most rewarding job I’ve ever done”—preparing adults to earn high school equivalency diplomas in Bordentown’s adult education program. “These adults see changes in their lives that they’ve been meaning to make for many years,” she says.
Students in the program run the gamut in age, motivation and life circumstances, says Darlene de la Cruz, supervisor of Bordentown’s adult basic education, English as a second language, and high school equivalency program. The most common reason students dropped out of school was overwhelming family circumstances, she says, and the people who stereotype these students as having been “too lazy” to complete high school are simply wrong, she says.
Csapo is particularly proud of two students. The first, after doing well in high school, stopped going to school in his junior year, when his mother went to war in Iraq. When he tried to return, the school told him he had missed too many days and couldn’t begin again until the next school year.
Life took over, and “it took until he had a little girl 10 years later and decided, ‘I want to do this for my daughter. I want to show her that I will give her a good life.’”
By then he was 28 and working as a truck driver, but he came to class every day with his tiny baby in a carrier. “He was so determined; he worked really hard,” Csapo says, and a year later he had his diploma.
A week or so after passing the high school equivalency test, he called her for help with his resume and a cover letter, which got him a place in an apprenticeship program for New Jersey Transit. He is now a permanent employee, working as a lineman.
A second man, her father’s age, had just gotten his diploma when he got laid off from his factory job. But his newly minted diploma enabled him to take classes in heating and air conditioning and eventually get licensed.
“Both of those guys were so determined, so ready to take on the next step,” Csapo said.
“Our students come to us with a lot of uncertainty but with a strong desire to accomplish that goal. It takes a lot of courage to come back,” says De la Cruz, who has worked in Bordentown’s adult education program for more than 20 years. “We give them the emotional support and the skill sets they need to eventually meet that goal.”
At the same time they are often pressed to take that next step. Not only are jobs more competitive, but all of a sudden employers are asking for credentials—even for people who have been in the same position for 15 or 20 years. As a result, De la Cruz says, people “come in panicked.”
“I think that not having a high school diploma destines you to poverty because doors do not open for you. Without that credential you can’t go very far. You can do a minimal job and can’t advance,” De la Cruz says.
The adult education program also runs a civics and ESL program, which draws a varied population. Some have college degrees, but need to improve their writing skills. Others are looking for civics education. Some have studied English but have never spoken it.
Because the GED preparation program is funded under a state Department of Labor Title II grant, its emphasis is on getting jobs and it measures its success against four goals: getting a job, retaining a job, getting a diploma, or going on to post-secondary training and education.
Under the grant, the Bordentown School District’s adult education program is in partnership with Rowan College at Burlington County, Literacy Volunteers of New Jersey, and Willingboro Adult School.
These locations offer different high school equivalency exams, like Hi-SET, GED and TASC. They all follow the core curriculum standards aligned to high school equivalency.
Each year Rowan College of Burlington County holds a graduation ceremony, with caps and gowns, at which all students who have passed a test receive their diplomas.
Classes resume on Sept. 10 after the summer break. New students take a pre-assessment test, and then the teachers build an individual plan.
Some students just need a brush-up on English, writing, and math to be ready for the test. Others need a few months of preparation and practice. Those who come in at the sixth grade level start in adult basic education. When students test in at a ninth grade level, De la Cruz says, “I tell them it’s like riding a bike. You may not have been in school for a while, but once you’re into it the skills will come back.”
Students use multiple online programs in class to develop their skills, and have the option of also using them at home. “Because they are adults and have so many balls in the air, we want to give them as much flexibility in learning as possible,” De la Cruz says.
Csapo says that she and another language arts teacher “rotate between individuals.” Math classes have a little more of a “classroom feel,” with the teacher offering mini-lessons to students at the same level.
Adult Basic Education, which has language arts and math programs, and the college equivalency prep program, which covers language arts, social studies, science, and mathematics, will meet Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday., 4:30-7:30 p.m. at the Bordentown Regional High School Career Center, Room 222.
ESL and Civics Instruction meet Tuesday and Thursday, 5-7 p.m. at Bordentown Regional High School, Room 28, and Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. at the Bordentown Library. Monday mornings are especially for students just learning to speak English, and Wednesday and Thursday mornings for those practicing their English, but beginners are welcome at all three. Programs are free.
The only challenge De la Cruz says she faces is how to effectively reach out to more adults who can profit from their program.
Csapo agrees. “I’m just hoping we can generate more students because of what we offer them.”
De la Cruz was born in Venezuela. Her parents met when her father was studying at the Bordentown Military Institute on Park Street, and the couple moved to Venezuela when her father got a job with Exxon.
When she was six months old, her parents moved back to Bordentown, but perhaps being born abroad gave her an extra measure of connection to immigrants. “I have a lot of empathy and compassion for people who are starting over and trying to come to this country and start a new life. I think it is important to give them the support they need.”
De la Cruz graduated from Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, with a degree in special education. She worked for many years in elementary special education for the Bordentown Regional School District. She earned a master’s degree in guidance at The College of New Jersey, then worked in guidance for 13 out of her 37 years with the district. She retired in 2010.
Csapo grew up in Hamilton, but her father’s family was from Bordentown and she has lived there herself since 2002. She teaches computers and business in Delran, and her daughter is a student at Bordentown Regional Middle School.
In 1992, Csapo graduated from Mount St. Mary’s College with a bachelor of arts in politics and government. In 1996 she received an MBA from Saint Joseph’s University.
After she adopted her daughter, Csapo transitioned to teaching.
Both women say they are devoted to their work in adult education. Csapo feels great pride when her students graduate. She sees them when they arrive and say, “If I don’t get this in three months, I will lose my job and how will I feed my kids,” and then marvels “to see these people cry when they pass this test … it is truly a blessing.”
For De la Cruz, helping students move forward is “very satisfying and so purposeful.”
“I love doing that for people—getting them to another chapter in their lives where they can be successful,” she says.