By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Just a year after arriving in the United States from El Salvador at the age of 15, Francis Barrera found himself living on his own.
"I've been on my own since I was 16 when I left school to find a full-time job," said Barrera, now 24 and unemployed.
He realized that working dead-end jobs wasn't going to help him reach his goal of being an English as a second language teacher, and that he needed a high school diploma. That led him to GED classes at the Upper Manhattan Workforce1 Career Center on 125th Street.
Now Barrera will be one of the first people to participate in a pilot program at the Upper Manhattan Center, called "Bridge to Tomorrow," a $1.25 million program from the City Council, Department of Education and Workforce Development that will put job-seekers such as Barrera on the fast track to his GED.
"We all know it's hard in this tough economy to get a job. But one can only imagine how much harder it is when you don't even have a high school diploma. It's hard to get a job if you have a long list of PhDs after your name," said City Council speaker Christine Quinn.
In the past year, 28,000 people came to the Upper Manhattan Workforce1 Career Center seeking work. Fourteen percent of job seekers did not have a GED or high school diploma.
In 2009, 160,000 people sought employment through all of the city's workforce centers. Approximately 27,000 were without a high school diploma or GED. About 1.6 million adult New Yorkers do not have a high school diploma or GED and New York state has the highest fail rate in the country among GED test-takers.
Despite the grim statistics, job seekers at the city's workforce center were not routinely asked if they had a high school diploma or GED or wanted to attain one, said Quinn.
"If you've gotten yourself to a Workforce1 Center, you are motivated. You want to change the factors in your life that have led you to unemployment," said Quinn. "We want to honor that commitment by offering them all of the assistance they need. Clearly if they don't have a hgh school diploma, one big type of assistance they need is getting a GED."
Under the program, job seekers will be given a GED test to assess their needs. If they meet minimum scoring requirements they will be fasttracked to the GED exam and bypass waiting lists. If they are close to the minimum requirements they can attend a six week class that meets three days per week, to improve GED skills. After completing the program they will be eligible to take the test immediately.
Cami Anderson, superintendent of Alternative High Schools and Programs for the New York City Department of Education, said the initiative captured adults "at the height of their motivation."
"We've been singularly obsessed with the notion that all students, regardless of age or setting can gain the competence needed to excel on the GED test and take the next step in their trajectory toward more life options and a wider array of career options which the GED can provide," said Anderson.
More options is the main reason Kay'aan Marrow, 23, was at the career center trying to get his GED. A gifted artist, Marrow said he realized he needed a college degree if he wanted to pursue a career in the arts or music.
"When I was in school I was taking my art and music more seriously than school," Marrow said. "Now I want to go to college, so I know I need my GED."
The $1.25 million grant will go much farther than normal because the initiative connects existing programs and pools resources to accomplish its goals. The plan was to move the project city-wide if it was successful, said Quinn.
"Bridge to Tomorrow is a program that is giving people the opportunity to uplift themselves through education," said Harlem Councilman Robert Jackson, chair of the Education Committee.