I need to improve my brain

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An Oldham Era special report: Clinton Payne is one of the more than 3,000 adults living in Oldham County who don’t have a high school diploma or GED, according to U.S. Census figures. Put another way, dropouts like him are about as common as residents i

By John Foster

His story follows the script among high school dropouts — difficulty in school and financial problems coupled with the allure of a $100 a day job coaxed him to leave school. He’s hoping his future doesn’t follow that same script.

Clinton Payne is one of the more than 3,000 non-inmate adults living in Oldham County who don’t have a high school diploma or GED, according to U.S. Census figures. Put another way, dropouts like him are about as common as residents in Oldham with a graduate or professional degree.

He made passing grades in school in Chicago, although a learning disability meant his schoolwork took longer than the other students. But given some time and he could figure out the answer, he said. Needing extra money, he worked after school at a video store, with paying work taking priority over homework.

He and his step-dad didn’t get along, he said. Eventually he got tired of the hassling and decided to support himself, leaving school as a high school junior for the promise of $100 a day with a moving company compared to $100 a week at the video store.

Close to a decade later, the scenery changed, but not his overall situation — stuck in a job he liked OK, but one without much of a future.

He enjoys cooking and he’s applied for restaurant jobs, but his lack of a diploma is a liability. In a stack of applications, it’s an easy way to rule him out, he thinks.

And he’s caught in a classic conundrum worthy of Joseph Heller or Jean-Paul Sartre or maybe Abbott and Costello.

He needs a job to gain some experience. So he applies, but is rejected — not enough experience. And around it goes.

He always fell back on the one job where he has experience — moving. Looking at his future, he couldn’t imagine his situation being any better in 20 years than it is now. About a year ago he injured his arm moving lab equipment and came to the realization he won’t be young forever and he can’t keep abusing his body like that.

“I need to improve my brain,” he decided.

Like Payne, many students drop out of high school because of financial hardship, Oldham County Adult and Community Education Program Manager Suzette Ertel said. 

Many also drop out because they’re tired of struggling every day at school. A smaller portion drop out due to pregnancy, Ertel said.

Almost all who come back to school do it to get a better paying job. The differences can indeed be significant. According to the Census Bureau, high school or GED graduates’ median earnings in Kentucky were $7,400 more than high school drop-outs in 2004 — $24,000 to $16,600.

Unfortunately most never go back to school and it often takes the added incentive of a layoff or a missed promotion to prompt adults to go after their GED, Ertel said.

“They wait until their back is against the wall,” she said.

Tutors are on hand 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the Oldham County Schools Arts Center; and 4:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays at the La Grange Community Center.

Tutors prepare students for  the five-part GED test in writing, reading, social studies, science and math. The test costs $40 until July, when the cost increases to $50. 

Last year, 50 students from Oldham County’s program earned their GED.

That makes them eligible to work at factories like Carriage House in Buckner, which requires a diploma or GED, Ertel said.

It also qualifies students to attend Jefferson Community and Technical College, school spokesperson Lisa Brosky said. A GED is just as good as a diploma to qualify for admission and grades don’t matter.

“For us, it’s the same,” she said.

She said 10 percent of their students come in with a GED instead of diploma.

Two success stories are a pair of friends who took that route. B.J. Fox and Heather Nalley worked as certified nursing assistants at a nursing home at the time and decided to get their GEDs together to make better money, Ertel said.

Ertel just received word that they had completed their training to become registered nurses, more than doubling their earning potential.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median earnings for registered nurses in 2006 were $57,280 compared to about $22,000 for a certified nursing assistant.

Not all success stories end in GED. Another success story is a mom who just wanted to be able to enjoy a book after her children went to bed. Now she spends many evenings curled up with a romance novel, Ertel said.

Payne is doing what he can to join the ranks of the success 

stories. For about a year, he has been a twice-weekly regular, showing up for an hour and a half for 


He thinks he’s about ready to test. Anyway, it doesn’t scare him.

“The GED is not intimidating,” Payne said. “Life is the intimidating part.”

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