URBANA – Jayner Bryant woke up every day for 27 years wondering where she'd get the drugs and alcohol that fueled her life.
After a year in jail and participation in a successful substance abuse program there, Bryant, 47, decided to turn her life around. She's now very close to earning her high school diploma at Urbana Adult Education, and that's just a start. Her next goal: to earn a degree at Parkland College on her way to becoming a counselor.
"I dropped out of school in ninth grade," said Bryant, one of about 1,400 students from all over the area attending classes at adult education to earn degrees, learn English and computer skills, acquire job skills and, in some cases, to learn to read.
Urbana's grant-funded program has been teaching adults basic education skills since the 1950s.
Director David Adcock said about half the students in the program are learning English.
"Our Spanish community is really growing," said Adcock, who speaks fluent Spanish. "But we have students from Turkey, Korea, Puerto Rico, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Japan and other countries. Our population is drawn from Parkland College's community college region, and we work with Parkland to make sure what we offer doesn't overlap."
Program funding, about $1.7 million a year, is a patchwork of federal and state grants channeled through the Illinois Community College Board, which means funding is uncertain from year to year. Next year, for example, the federal government is cutting funds available for one program, Even Start, by 55 percent, and Adcock is scrambling to find grant sources and other funding to keep the program operating.
Students in all adult education programs do not pay tuition, and classes address widely diverse needs of adults who need help taking the next step forward.
LaShonda Britt's working on just that. She dropped out of school when she had her first child at 15. She first completed the certified nursing assistant program because she didn't need a diploma to take it. But she wanted more .
"With four kids, working as a nursing assistant doesn't make enough," said Britt, 28. "I want to help them go to college, buy their first car. I want this so badly."
Now, like Bryant, she's racing through her degree requirements in adult performance level classes. Students are admitted to those classes if counselors who test skills of each incoming student see they can read and learn at the high school level.
APL students must also be at least 18 and be able to work independently through a check list of life-skills subjects that include consumer economics, health, occupational knowledge and government and law. They work at their own speed to earn a degree from Urbana High School. Staff members make graduation a big deal, posting pictures of graduates, in cap and gown, on classroom walls.
"A student graduated last night," said Sheri Langendorf, an APL teacher. "She had trouble at first, and her desire to do it made her successful."
The program employs 18 full-time and about 25 part-time teachers who do a lot of individual work with each student. They rely heavily on help from volunteer tutors like University of Illinois senior Tricia Murphy, who's been working there since she came to campus.
Murphy said she was hooked after a year.
"I saw one of my English as a second language students at the mall, and she ran up to tell me I'd helped her get a job," Murphy said. "We see people going to Parkland; we see people getting better jobs. Adults getting a second chance is something I want to be part of.
"The most difficult part is understanding that people are coming from very different places than you're coming from. That helps you approach things with an open manner."
Adcock, who was principal of King School before he moved to the adult education program, works hard to get word about his programs out to the community.
"We advertise," he said. "We take information to Shadowwood, to Orchard Downs, to community agencies and businesses who employ people who speak languages other than English. "
Bryant had recently moved to Urbana when she drove by the office on Race Street and realized the program could be the answer to her new dreams.
"I'd look at my grandchildren and think, 'I need some stability in life,'" she said. "My kids cut the cycle and I'm going to be able to be the grandmother I want to be. There are people in this program who have been where I've been, people from everywhere. The teachers say, 'I'm here to help you get where you want to be.'"
After she was released from prison, Bryant took her first step to success, enrolling in a certified nursing assistant program in another city. She completed it, ranking high in her class, but she had trouble with certification because of her record, so she took the class again and fought for her certificate.
"That class was the first thing I've finished in my life," Bryant said. "Now I'm here and I'm graduating in May. I kept trying to get my GED but I couldn't get past math. Here I can work at my own pace. It's a great feeling to know you can do it if you put your mind to it. Now I don't have to suffer searching for my next drugs and alcohol. I don't have to search for anything. It's here."
Matthew Brown, a 22-year-old Champaign resident, dropped out of high school because he was having trouble at home. But Brown learned some difficult facts of life pretty quickly.
"It's hard without a high school diploma," he said. "It's hard getting a job, and it's hard to get anyone to take your seriously. I started just before spring break. This program's nice. You work by yourself, the teachers help you and classmates help you, too."
Brown, who heard about the program through a high school counselor, plans to head for Florida after he finishes the program this year. He said he'd like to go to a community college there to learn a trade so he can get a good job.
Britt gives her four children, her husband, Larry, and her mother, Rosie Britt of Champaign, credit for keeping her on track. "They're proud of me," she said.
This summer, she intends to start classes at Parkland to earn a degree in surgical technology.
"We fill a niche no one else fills," Adcock said. "These students are really working, and we try to make it fun. It's very rewarding to see students who came here very challenged leaving with a cap and gown or a diploma or even just reading."