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GED testing resumes at the Allegheny County Jail after a two-year pandemic pause

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Mark Nootbaar
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90.5 WESA

Since April, five people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail have earned a GED, a demonstration of high school academic knowledge.

Recently, a student nearly a decade past high school age passed the test. He wore a cap and gown and was presented with the certificate. Jack Pischke, inmate program administrator, says the student paused to take in the moment before jail staff took his photo.

“He had tears in his eyes. It was good to see that. He was one of the ones that had struggled for years. He never gave up. And we never gave up on him,” Pischke said.

Joe Tokar, the coordinator of adult education at the jail through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said the student is looking to attend community college once he’s released.

The GED, formerly known as the General Educational Development test, assesses math, writing, science and social studies knowledge. For more than two decades, instructors with the state-run Allegheny Intermediate Unit have taught students preparing for the test and administered them on-site and in person.

While learning never ended, the testing, which is in person, was put on hold. The jail has kept housing pods separate for the last two years. Whereas before, inmates in different pods could combine for class work.

During the pandemic, students were given paper packets with source material and assignments.

Every week, Pischke dropped the packets off at the AIU offices and picked up more work. Instructors reviewed and commented on the material. It became more of a tutoring approach. About a year ago, teachers began going to housing pods to work individually with students.

The jail is slowly returning to live instruction, where students meet in a classroom with access to smartboards and computers.

“It’s kind of a relief because for almost two years, we’ve been preparing them to take the test,” Pischke said. “They’re excited because now … they can see the fruits of their labor. It’s the big key that opens the door to their future. You can’t go anywhere without your high school diploma anymore. Now, when they leave here, they can honestly go in and apply for a job and check the box that says high school graduate.”

Tokar with the AIU says while formerly incarcerated people without a diploma or GED could get an entry-level job, the certificate will open more opportunities.

“And that’s the key to being able to advance within the organization and make a family-sustaining income,” Tokar said.

The program has been in place for more than two decades. Since 2014, 192 people have earned a GED through the jail’s program. One of the oldest graduates that Tokar and Pischke can remember is a 62-year-old Vietnam war veteran.

Some students had completed a few years of high school before dropping out, while others left school much earlier. Tokar said there’s no standard timeframe for studying and taking the GED.

“Everybody learns at different times, different paces, [or are] different types of learners,” Tokar said. “We’ve had folks come down to our classes for four weeks and pass, and we’ve had guys that were in our program for five years before passing.”

Tokar said the goal is to return to the classroom environment. In the meantime, a few formerly incarcerated people who studied for the GED have come to the AIU office to take the test.

“It’s common for an individual to get released and then we don’t hear from them for a couple of months, and then they come back and say, ‘I need to finish up my work or finish my test,'” he said.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.