After 11th grade at Northeast High School, Cameron Sims did what every counselor would advise against: He dropped out.
The consequences of leaving high school without a diploma can be dire: joblessness, poverty, prison.
But Sims had a plan. He signed up for GED prep classes at YESPhilly's GED to College (G2C) program at its offices on North Broad Street near Girard Avenue. He started there in October 2010. Nine months later he took – and passed – the GED test, and now he attends college, with the goal of being a cartoonist.
Sims left high school, he said, because "I wasn't challenged and I didn't feel attached to the school. I wanted to be in school, but that school didn't fit me."
Sims, now 19, had some advantages going into GED prep. Both his mother and grandmother were supportive, his math skills were relatively strong, and he knew he would like YESPhilly's media arts focus.
"I didn't think it would be as rigorous as it was, but I got through it. At the same time, the longer I stayed, the more relationships I built with teachers and students," Sims recalled. "You have to really pay attention in class. They teach you the fundamentals. I had to sharpen my skills."
Having earned his GED, he enrolled first at the Community College of Philadelphia and then transferred to the Art Institute of Philadelphia, a private college. The only downside: One employer would not consider any GED applicants.
YESPhilly focuses on supporting youth who have dropped out. Their G2C program helps young people ages 17-21 develop literacy, math and technology skills, attain GED credentials, and then pursue credit-bearing – not remedial – college courses or other postsecondary training.
The G2C program is one local reflection of a national effort to align with new goals laid out in the GED 21st Century Initiative of the GED Testing Service, including the testing upgrades coming in 2014.
Career counseling is an important component of the G2C program. "Our approach is a conspiracy of support of a sort … to make sure you don't fall through the cracks," said Mike Sack, YESPhilly's education director.
In many ways, the program foreshadows the upcoming GED initiative, with its emphasis on career counseling and college readiness. Sack described G2C classes as "more rigorous" than what is found in the traditional basic education system.
Yet the GED changes will pose challenges for the YESPhilly program. Teachers will need more training, and students likely will have to stay in the program longer to acquire sufficient skills to pass the more difficult tests, he said.
Sack congratulated Sims on his success to date but urged him to keep his eye on the prize – a college degree.
"We've gotten you beyond the GED, and you've gotten you into college. You just have to make sure you finish within a reasonable period of time," Sack advised Sims. "Don't let it go. It really matters a lot."