Drop out driven to get ahead
Brandy Klamm received a high school diploma this month with a $500 scholarship to Johnson County Community College.
What made Klamm's achievement unusual in a month filled with pomp and circumstance was the 17-year-old's decision of a year ago that her sophomore year at De Soto High School would be her last.
"High school just wasn't for me," she said. "I can't have that much jurisdiction over me -- people telling me what to do and stuff like that. I'm very independent."
Adding to Klamm's discomfort was her feeling that she didn't fit in.
"The kids there were worried about winning the football game or who's dating who," she said. "I was worried about things like making money."
Despite her decision, Klamm had no intention of living a life of poverty that statistics show often haunts dropouts. She explored alternatives before leaving high school.
"Family members told me of the GED program, and I investigated it," she said. "I took it on myself to do the rest."
Her decision introduced her to Joan Foley. An instructor in the GED program, Project Finish, offered by Johnson County Community College, Foley provides GED instruction at the De Soto Library every Thursday.
Klamm, who lives in De Soto with her grandfather, Robert Holsinger, was an unusual student who moved through the GED process in one month, Foley said. To earn a GED, students must pass an exam with separate tests in social studies, science, math, writing and literature.
Participants were given a series of tests when they first started the program to determine where they stood, Foley said. When students have a prescribed number of hours, they are given a pre-GED, which helps better define the areas of weakness. She said the state-administered GED was taken when students and their instructors think the students are prepared.
"Brandy was one of the quick ones," Foley said. "She's a very bright girl. She learns very quickly."
Klamm said she simply used what she learned in school.
"It's just that a lot of people waited a lot of years until they tried to get their GED," she said. "If they had done it right after they dropped out, they would have done fine."
Not all GED student come to Project Finish as well prepared as Klamm, Foley said. Some, like the man who walked into the De Soto study area after hanging out at the library for several hours, have reading skills so poor that successfully completing a GED was daunting.
Most students start somewhere between those two extremes, Foley said. With some high school, they want a GED to get a better job, or in some cases keep the one they have, she said.
The desire for a better life provided the motivation that was key to success, Foley said. Successful students work on their weaknesses, taking advantages of tutors like her husband, William -- an engineer who helps students with math -- and attend the once-a-week sessions regularly, she said.
"It becomes very obvious," she said. "It is not like a classroom where a person can come and sit it through and get something out of it. We test and test and test. It is their reading level that makes it possible to take a GED test."
Klamm saw her GED as just a step in her climb up the academic ladder. She participated in the GED graduation this month but started taking classes at JCCC soon after receiving her GED in June 2002.
"I'm going to school spring, summer, fall and winter," she said. "I'm going to be a certified nurse's aid at the end of July. I want to earn an RN certificate from Johnson County, and then go to college at KU or out of state."
Klamm's aspirations don't end with a bachelor's degree. She said she planned to continue her education to become a doctor or physical therapist. Should Klamm realize her dream, she wouldn't be Foley's first GED student to study for a post-graduate degree.
"When I was at the Antioch Center, this man walked in on crutches," Foley said. "He was a laborer who was injured. He went to JCCC and on to college. He's now in law school.
"Brandy is one with ambitions to do the very same. She's talented enough that I believe she will."
Despite her success, Klamm said high school students shouldn't emulate her educational shot cut.
"I probably wouldn't recommend it to other people," she said. "It's harder because you have to fight for everything that's against you. You are going to have a lot of people saying, 'you can't do it.'"
Foley doesn't want Project Finish seen as an alternative to high school, either.
High school-aged participants are rare, Foley said. Local school districts have to sign a release before the program can accept students younger than 18.
"I've certainly talked to counselors about the students," she said. "I think the counselors will do the most they can to keep them in school, but sometimes it isn't possible.
"We had one student kicked out of school because of emotional problems. He hung in there and got his GED."