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Program helps single moms earn GED

Laronica Irby could not drive a car yet when she quit school. At a tender 15 years old, Irby walked away from the world of blackboards, teachers and books.

Soon, she got pregnant. A high school diploma seemed as distant as the clouds. Diapers, bottles and pacifiers consumed her every waking moment. For two years, she hardly gave her education another thought.

Last summer she heard about a program designed for women like her – women who wanted a second chance.

When Irby stepped inside Payne Elementary School, she found a world of possibility, both for her and her son, Gabriel.

She enrolled in the Even Start program in August 2008. Five months later, Irby earned her General Educational Development credential.

“I really didn’t think I was going to make it,” the 17-year-old said. “I really didn’t think I’d come this far.”

Even Start is a program aimed toward single mothers without high-school diplomas. Instructors prepare participants for the GED test. Since the program is a collaborative effort between Selma City Schools and Wallace Community College-Selma, advisors help enroll the women in college.

The program runs inside Payne Elementary on Tuesday through Friday. For a little more than six hours, women study for the GED and learn life and parenting skills. Meanwhile, their children play and learn in a nearby room. Even Start facilitator Drue Lee said it is the perfect situation.

“It’s serving the parents and the children,” Lee said. “In education, if we leave parent behind we leave the child behind.”

Irby said childcare access was the one thing holding her down. She could not leave Gabriel at home while she attended GED classes.

“I didn’t have any daycare, nobody to watch my child,” she said. “I’m blessed to be in this program.”

Even Start currently serves 12 women. Participants are accepted based on need. Along with providing educational tools, Lee said the program serves as a support group for these women who often feel isolated.

“It is needed,” Lee said. “There’s so much more personal involvement.”

Irby said this involvement encouraged her to continue her education. She is enrolled at WCCS taking basic classes toward an associate’s degree, something she never dreamed she would do.

Tomessa Blevins recounted her story with a look of pride and pain. Blevins quit Parker High School in Birmingham when she was only 16. She heard about Even Start through a community outreach project. Blevins, a mother of three, jumped at the chance to enroll. She studied for hours on end and worked a night shift at McDonald’s.

“If I want my kids to do it, I got to do it,” Blevins said. “I tell them you got to have a high school diploma if you want to be anything in life.”

Her kids are listening. Marvin White, 8, is a straight A student at Edgewood Elementary, Blevins said with an oversized smile. Blevins’ children, Marvin, 6-year-old Jermain Young and 2-year-old Leandrea Givan are her pride and joy. It meant the world to her that they could be with her each day.

“We made lunch together and everything,” she said.

As Blevins spoke, Leandrea toddled around the room holding a purple crayon in her small hand. Blevins sat in a chair watching her daughter, who has spent one year coming to this room, studying and learning.

Blevins and Irby said they are more grateful to Lee, adult education instructor Harriett King and countless others involved.

Blevins, who is enrolled in WCCS’s certified nursing assistant program, said Even Start transformed her.

“This program is basically trying to turn us into real women,” she said.