Local and state libraries now serve as educational epicenters, offering the high school program free of charge to their patrons

It is estimated that over 4.5 million Californians over the age of 25 don’t have high school diplomas. More than 1.2 million working residents of Florida ages 25 to 44 don’t either. As a result, these individuals can be barred from many opportunities in the workplace, higher education, and society in general. In 2015, Career Online High School teamed up with the State of Florida and California State Library to do something about that.

The Career Online High School program for libraries was launched in a partnership between Gale (part of Cengage Learning) and Smart Horizons Career Online Education, the world’s first AdvancED/SACS/NCA/NWAC private online school district. Gale is a leading provider of educational tools and services to libraries. And, as libraries have struggled to redefine themselves in an increasingly digital world, Gale in 2014 introduced an innovative concept to the industry—offer an accredited online high school program within the library’s very walls.

Over the past two years, major library systems across the country have begun offering the program to their patrons. From Phoenix to Denver to Los Angeles to more than 50 libraries nationwide, residents have received hundreds of scholarships to finally earn a high school diploma. The State of Florida has since adopted the program in 11 libraries, and 36 libraries in California now offer it.

“Governor Brown recognizes the important role libraries play in California’s education system and workforce development,” California State Librarian Greg Lucas said at the program’s launch in his state. “Libraries have always been an integral part of the community. For those who want to complete their high school education and prepare for a career, having a library card can be their first step to success.”

And so far, residents are finding that it’s the perfect fit. Many students are in their 20s and 30s—most dropped out of high school, some are first generation Americans who discovered that their schooling in another country was not considered valid in the U.S. Regardless, every single one of them found that they were locked out of jobs or further schooling due to their lack of a diploma.

“Having a high school diploma is really necessary,” recent Florida graduate Micah Moulton agreed, when asked why he signed up for the program. “Without one you can’t join the navy, you can’t go to college, and you can’t get a good job.”

To date, the libraries have produced nearly 150 graduates in pilot programs alone. Why has the program succeeded where other forms of schooling failed? For Micah, who completed the program via the Jacksonville Public Library, it was the high level of support. The school’s academic coaches and the library’s staffers provide a dual layer of assistance. When students struggle academically, certified teachers are on hand to explain concepts.

“It is a lot of hard work,” he stated. “But you get a lot of support, too.” The 22-year-old said that someone was always there for him. In contrast, at his previous schools, he always felt like “a number.”

Forty-three year old Gerardo Vazquez, currently a student at the King Library in San José, CA, agreed: “The people at the library call me all the time and tell me they are excited about me graduating—that they’re proud of me. They tell me to come and say ‘hi,’ and use the computers there if I need to. They are excited and passionate—they really support me and they push me to do my studies.”

Another reason the program is “clicking” for students is its strong career focus and emphasis on job skills. To that end, in addition to an accredited diploma, students earn a career certification in a specific field that offers the skills and knowledge they need to join—and succeed in—the workforce.

“It is about personal achievement, bettering oneself, and also improving your opportunities in the workforce to get a higher paying job,” Florida graduate Crystal Siblag recently told the Daily Commercial. “It opens the door for higher wage opportunities within the workforce.”

Crystal completed the program through the Lake County Library System. Her inspiration was her son, who was crushed to discover his mother had not graduated high school. At 31 years of age, she decided to change that. “I wanted to improve,” she said.

The program similarly attracts many parents who want to set a good example for their children, breaking the damaging generational cycle of low educational attainment levels. Carolina Heredia, 35, moved from Mexico to California 12 years ago, and was studying English with a tutor at the San José Public Library when she heard about the program. Her son, currently in middle school, is thrilled to see his mother finally earning her high school diploma.

“He sees me study—and hopefully he will think he can do it, too,” she said.

Gerardo is also “breaking the cycle.” He too grew up in Mexico, where he was forced to choose between school and bringing in a paycheck: “My father did not want me to study because he did not want to pay [for school] and he wanted me to work in the field. So I grew up thinking [education] was not important. As I got older, I felt a hole in my life—something was missing.”

Due to the program’s flexibility, Gerardo no longer has to make a difficult choice between bringing in a paycheck or going to school. Students can complete the program online at the library or from their homes 24/7, and can schedule coursework around their jobs and other commitments. “I can do it anytime; it is very convenient,” he said.

After moving to the U.S., Gerardo realized that a high school diploma was his ticket to success. “I moved here because I wanted to improve my life and achieve the American dream and get rich but I found it wasn’t that simple. So, I decided that the best way to improve my life is with education.”

What’s next? For students like Micah, it’s college. Micah joins the thousands of Career Online High School graduates that have gone on to further schooling—in fact, upon graduating, over 70 percent of students plan to enroll in college. Micah is now pursuing his goal of becoming an EMT and firefighter.

Carolina plans to continue working with children, and chose Child Care as her career certificate. “I love to work with kids,” she said. But while her aunt owns a daycare and Carolina volunteers regularly at her son’s school, many child care jobs require a high school diploma or Child Development Associate (CDA). She is almost done with the Child Care portion of the program, which meets the 120 clock hours required for a CDA.

Like Micah, Gerardo plans to go on to college, but he also has loftier goals in mind:

“I want the children in my town get a better life. I want to open the way for people through my experience. People make wrong decisions—I want to try to be the example to other people and bring hope to them. Let them know that if I can do it, they can do it. It is never too late to learn.”

To learn more about the Career Online High School program for libraries, please visit careeronlinehs.gale.com.

To learn more about the Smart Horizons Career Online Education school district, please visit shcoe.org.