Farmworkers, Family Members, Earn GED Through Heritage Program in Yakima Valley | Education
TOPPENISH — Erica Solis, a 24-year-old mother of three from Mabton, was among 55 students who celebrated a milestone last week: She earned her GED through a program at Heritage University.
“It means a lot, I embrace it. My education has always meant a lot to me,” she said. “I feel like I’m accomplishing something and I really feel like I got successful.”
Solis graduated on Friday from the high school equivalency program at Heritage University’s Toppenish campus.
Solis dropped out of high school to focus on raising her children. The flexibility and support she found at Heritage helped her succeed.
Nia Peters and her husband work at the Legends Casino graveyard. She left work at 4 a.m., took a nap, then came to Heritage on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a math class. She praised the individual attention she found.
“I really like it. They really helped me,” Peters said. “It was a bit difficult to come here after four hours of sleep, but I’m glad I persevered.”
The HEP at Heritage University has been in existence for over 20 years and caters only to migrant workers and their families. The program is completely free and serves approximately 100 students each year.
GED programs are an important service. In Yakima County, 26% of adults don’t have a high school diploma or equivalent, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. That’s more than double the national rate — 11.6% of Americans don’t. have not graduated from high school or achieved some form of high school equivalency.
HEP students have two years to study and earn their GED. They can take courses in Toppenish, Granger or Prescott. A new location will open in Sunnyside in August.
To qualify, a family member of a student must have worked in agriculture or with food for 75 days in the past two years. Families engaged in subsistence farming may also be eligible. These requirements come from the Office of Migrant Education, which funds the HEP with five-year grants.
A qualifying family member is an immediate family member – a parent, sibling, or spouse – who lives in the same household as the student. For example, Solis’ wife works in agriculture. Peters worked seasonally as a fruit picker. Program director Jennifer Renteria, who graduated from the program, said work status is verified using pay stubs or W-2 forms.
Renteria and its staff work to meet students where they are by creating an individual education plan for each student. If students qualify, they take predictive exams which are used to determine how students should study and where to apply their attention.
“They have a plan in place, which is when they take their exams, if they’re ready, and if they have to schedule the official exams,” Renteria said. “Each student is different, which is why we have implemented the individualized education plan.”
Some students only need a few classes to get what they need. Peters only needed a math lesson. Solis worked with a program coordinator to study on her own.
“I’ve always done better working independently,” Solis said. “They gave me the tools I needed – the language arts book, the math book – it was really fast for me.”
The program provides academic and professional resources. Throughout the year, various universities and schools are invited to present their programs to the students. Staff, including a dedicated retention and employment coordinator, help students apply for college, technical school, or employment.
Renteria is proud of the 55 students who have graduated, although she said the pandemic has lowered the graduation rate. Typically, between 75 and 85 HEP students receive their GED each year.
“I know this program works for our community,” Renteria said. “A lot of people say a GED is a second chance and I always say it’s not a second chance, it’s actually a first chance.”
Reporting by Jasper Kenzo Sundeen for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with the support of Report for America and community members across the Yakima Valley Community Fund. These stories may be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our journal city editor.