Since dropping out of high school at age 16, 54-year-old Ed Walters had always dreamed of going back to get his GED, now called the High School Equivalency diploma.

“I regret dropping out of school, but I thought it was the right choice,” he said. His parents were struggling financially, so he went to work on local farms to help keep the family afloat. “I didn’t think I was going to pass anyway, so I decided to help them keep their house.”

But, as life moved along and time passed, Walters said he just never found the motivation to get that diploma.

About two decades ago, he was hired onto the custodial staff at Hanover College; it’s a job he truly loves, working with people who appreciate his dedication and hard work.

Two years ago, however, college administrators decided to hire an outside firm to oversee its housekeeping and custodial operations.

“I didn’t have a diploma,” he said, recalling his reaction to the news. “Would I have a job?”

With glowing recommendations from Mike Bruce, Hanover’s vice president for business affairs, and Director of Operations Scott Klein, he said, the new company chose to keep Walters on the payroll, regardless of his lack of a diploma.

“I really gave it a lot of thought,” he said, but he had switched jobs in the past and lived to regret those decisions.

And the experience got him thinking about what might happen if another company was to come along and get the contract to manage custodial operations at the college.

Perhaps next time, a high school diploma would be a requirement.

That’s when his wife, Mary Jo, heard about the Adult Education program offered at The Clearinghouse at 100 E. Second St. She encouraged him to sign up for the program.

He was hesitant, but he finally agreed to go if she went with him. Even though Mary Jo is a high school graduate, she attended classes with Walters for the first few weeks – until he started to feel comfortable.

“The hardest part is walking through that door” that first day, he said.

Eventually, he said, he became inspired by the program’s teacher, Linda Lawrence, who took the job after retiring from a 35-year career as an eighth-grade teacher with Madison Consolidated Schools.

Lawrence said she knew right away that Walters’ journey was going to be a tough one. Each new student is given an intake assessment to determine where they stand, academically, in five subjects: math, reading, writing, science and social studies.

To earn a diploma, a student must pass each of the five tests with an “A,” which is the top rating.

Walters’ assessment placed him at the lowest level, “E,” in all five subjects.

Since it is often the most challenging subject for her adult students, Lawrence said she told Walters they would start working on his math skills first. Under the HSE program, the math component is now much more rigorous than it was under the GED (general equivalency diploma) program. She said that was done to ensure it is in line with what high school students today are required to know to graduate, she said.

As primarily a language arts teacher, Lawrence said, math is the subject she knew least about teaching.

“A lot of the math we were learning together,” she admitted.

Though there were times when he wanted to quit, Walters rolled up his sleeves and powered through. For the next 14 months, he attended evening classes every Monday and Wednesday, missing only two classes, Lawrence said. 

And this month, not only did he pass all five subjects at the “A” level, he now has that coveted diploma.

“Ed is one of my most cherished moments of all my years of teaching – working with him and seeing his accomplishments, and changing his life,” she said. “Because he’s so much more confident now.”

Anxiety over his work situation forced him onto anti-anxiety medication, which made him drowsy and messed with his memory, he said. Today, reaching his goal and attaining that diploma has eliminated much of that anxiety and he has been about to cut the medication back to almost nothing.

Lawrence said Walters is an inspiration for her, as well.

“I’ll have a student that comes in all E’s, and I’ll look at them and just say, ‘I’m going to just tell you the truth. You can do this. But it’s going to take some time and effort on your part. And I want to tell you about Ed,’” she said.

Both of them encourage other adults to come to The Clearinghouse and sign up for the HSE program. Lawrence’s program also helps adults obtain certification for Work Indiana jobs including welding, commercial drivers licenses and dozens of other occupations.

The certificates, she said, give people who are high school graduates or earn their HSE’s one more leg-up to get the jobs they want at the pay they need for themselves and their families.

Every adult education program at The Clearinghouse is all free to students. From the HSE program to the certification programs, students pay nothing and get to keep all the books and study materials when they finish, Lawrence said. Transportation vouchers are provided, as well as gas cards for programs that are not offered at the downtown madison facility, such as welding.

And, thanks to a SkillsUp grant from the state, each person who completes their HSE or certificate program earns $250 upon graduation. 

For more information or to make an appointment to sign up for the program, call (812) 265-2652, or call River Valley Resources’ hot line at (855) 591-7849.