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Program offers second chance at earning high school diploma

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: Today, the Journal continues “The Good News File,” a series of uplifting stories in partnership with KOAT-TV and KKOB Radio. The Journal will publish a “Good News” feature the first Friday of the month, KOAT-TV will present its feature each second Friday and KKOB each third Friday.

It’s said there are no do-overs in life, but librarians in Albuquerque are hoping to provide some people with a chance to do it all over again.

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Library system has teamed up with the New Mexico State Library to help high school dropouts earn a diploma. Career Online High School is available through public library systems across the country and launched in Albuquerque this January during the pandemic. Unlike some other paths to earning that missing piece of paper that says “I graduated,” this program allows participants to complete all their coursework online and costs are covered by a scholarship. Students are also earning an actual diploma and not a GED certificate.

For Tammy Leyba-Ortega, 43, trouble started almost immediately when she started her freshman year at Albuquerque High School.

“I was ditching school, getting into fights, not paying attention in class,” she said. “I was hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

Albuquerque resident Tammy Leyba-Ortega is a student on track to get her diploma through Career Online High School. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Leyba-Ortega said her parents, frustrated with her actions, had enough and withdrew her from school just three months into the term. Leyba-Ortega said she didn’t really want to leave but she also didn’t care about her courses and wasn’t putting forth any effort. Instead, she went right to work at Kentucky Fried Chicken, then some local restaurants and finally landed an office job – but that’s where it stopped for her.

“Because I didn’t have a diploma, I could never go to school for anything else,” she said. “I couldn’t advance.”

Eight years ago, Leyba-Ortega got sick and has been on disability, which gave her time to complete her high school education. She tried a couple of other programs but said she struggled to complete math. Career Online High School, she said, is a format that can finally allow her to succeed.

Each student gets an online academic coach, technical support and a direct connection to local library staff. In addition to high school-related coursework, students get career training in their chosen field including general office, child care, retail and security. Leyba-Ortega said she hopes to continue her education after getting her diploma to become a dental assistant.

Joshua Fox is the program coordinator for the library. He said the program has six students who had to complete an interview with library staff to be admitted. Students must also be at least 19, take an online assessment and complete a two-week prerequisite course. Fox said they were looking for people who were enthusiastic and dedicated.

“Because we are investing in them,” he said. “It’s a time commitment on their part. All of them said life got in the way and they couldn’t finish high school but now they feel like they can.”

He said the program takes about 750 hours to complete and students have up to 18 months to finish.

The state library agreed to match each scholarship one for one. The Albuquerque Public Library Foundation funded the library’s portion of the scholarships.

Julia Clarke, president of the foundation, said the program is a win for more than the students.

“This program makes an enormous difference for the individual and also for the community,” she said. “Studies show that those with a high school diploma earn $8,000 to $10,000 more annually than those without. And higher graduation rates in a community means lowered crime, reduced social service costs and healthier residents.”

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