SKOWHEGAN — Twenty-six-year-old Zander Walz sat down at the piano during a break in graduation rehearsals for Skowhegan Area Adult and Community Education.

Alone in the auditorium but for another graduate, Walz banged out the theme from “Chariots of Fire,” a 1981 film about inspiration and beating the odds.

“It’s about never giving up,” said Walz, who now, with a General Educational Development, or GED, high school-equivalency diploma, will attend radiology classes at Kennebec Valley Community College in the fall.

“It’s about overcoming odds,” he said. “It’s about no matter what anybody tells you, you can still do what you want to do.”

Walz is one of 68 adults to receive a diploma this year from the Skowhegan program.

Program officials note that higher education has a direct link to higher earning potential and success later in life, including college or in the workforce. They add that with changes in how the GED test will be given starting next year, anyone with accumulated credits will have to finish their courses before the end of this year or lose the credits and start over.

Walz, of North Anson, said he was home-schooled and had trouble writing because of dyslexia. He received a home-school high school diploma, but that wasn’t enough to get him into college.

He needed a GED and signed up for adult education classes in Skowhegan, where the program is part of School Administrative District 54.

“For me, having the diploma was important for getting accepted to college,” Walz said. “I always wanted to go to college to be an x-ray technician, and you can’t go to college without the credentials. I got my GED and I am starting this fall at KVCC.”

Patte Bowman, director of adult education in Skowhegan, said having a high school diploma is essential to success.

“Everywhere you go, whether you are going to college or looking for work, people are expecting that you have an education,” Bowman said. “The demands of the workplace, the demands of college are so much more technical and skilled now than they ever used to be. In the past, people could get along and make a good living without having a high school education; but those kinds of jobs are gone.”

Adults with a high school diploma or its equivalent make substantially more than those without the certification, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education. Income rose with the level of education, too.

In 2010, the median annual income for working adults without a high school diploma or the equivalent was $21,000 and rose to $29,900 for those with certification.

Incomes rose to $37,000 for those with an associate degree and $45,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Earning a GED is free in Maine. The adult education program is financed through school district budgets and with state and federal grants for education.

Chelsea George, 18, of Madison, is an example of someone who got off track in high school and left, only to realize the importance of a good education. She also is among the graduates this year from the Skowhegan GED program.

George said she was supposed to have graduated with her high school class this year but dropped out. Armed now with a high school equivalency diploma, George said she wants to get a degree in criminal justice to become a state police trooper.

“The reason I didn’t finish is I got picked on a lot,” she said. “It was just really stressful and I had a lot of anxiety.

“Then my brother got into an accident and I was out with him for a while and I fell behind, so I just gave up and dropped out.”

She started preparation for a GED and passed all the tests for graduation — writing, social studies, science, reading and mathematics.

“It’s so important to me because I want to go to college, and you can’t really do anything without a high school diploma or equivalency. I also did it for my parents, especially my father. This is my dream since I was a little girl, and I’m very happy that it’s starting to come true.”

George’s father, Ernie, was disappointed when she dropped out, she said, in part because her two older brothers had dropped out before her.

“He left all of his hope to me,” she said. “I’m happy that I did graduate, so he can see at least one of his kids graduate.”

Changes are coming in the way the GED test is delivered. Anyone who hasn’t completed the five-course GED class by the end of this year will lose the credits accumulated and will have to start over when the test changes in 2014.

Bowman urged anyone who began GED studies in recent years and has not completed each of the five courses to finish them before the end of the year.

The new GED testing for a high school diploma will be more computer-based, with more writing, fewer multiple-choice questions and a scoring system that rates a student’s readiness for college.

Bowman said the idea behind the changes is to prepare graduates for a more automated world, where computer skills are essential to success. She said the changes will require anyone seeking a diploma to either own or have access to a computer.

“I worry it’s not going to be as accessible to some of our people,” Bowman said. She said there are “still a lot of people who don’t have email addresses when they come and meet with us.”

Bowman said the changes should not be seen, however, as a deterrent to people wanting to complete their high school education. She said students still can enroll in the program and take classes as before, and program staff will help them prepare for the test.

Deb Bowmaster, director of Lawrence Adult Education in Fairfield, part of School Administrative District 49, said 36 people completed the course work for their GED in her program this year. She said GED testing changes every 10 years.

She said the coming changes in GED rules could make it harder for potential students to accomplish and might scare some students away.

“It’s in alignment with the common core state standards and meant to prepare people for work, and for higher education and life in general,” Bowmaster said. “It’s important to show employers that you’ve finished your education. The way the economy is, employers will not hire anybody without a GED or high school education, so being able to complete your education is important to be able to get a job and to go on to school.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
[email protected]