HANNIBAL — Last week, Brittany Gray was on her way to a job interview, and this opportunity is something she’s spent more than 10 years of her life fighting for.
Gray had been in and out of the school system since middle school — back and forth between public school and homeschooling. She dropped out of Hannibal High School during the first semester of 10th grade to homeschool full-time.
The problem was, Gray said, that homeschooling in her family didn’t include much schooling.
“My mom never made school a priority,” she said. “It was always kind of a secondary thing.”
Gray became a young mother without a high school diploma.
Gray, now 29 and a mother of three, has another 15 weeks of school at John Wood Community College until she graduates as a certified electrician.
Gray graduated from high school less than a year ago through the Hannibal Equivalency Test (HiSET) program.
Classes are available to study for the HISET at the Missouri Career Center at 203 North 6th Street in downtown Hannibal.
Elise Burch, a state-certified adult education and literacy educator, has worked with the program for five years with the goal of achieving a basic education for every adult in Hannibal.
Serving around 50 students a year, the class meets people where they are, so no one feels too late to participate. Orientation begins with a placement test to determine where students should begin their academic journey.
“We have students who come from level CE2 to level CM1. All they need to study is the field they start with,” Burch said. “They can choose what they want to start with and only study what they need to study.”
Although there are certain attendance requirements for the class, they aim to accommodate work and family schedules with classes from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. each day Monday through Thursday.
Gray faced family hurdles as she tried to raise her three children and care for sick parents, who eventually passed away. This, and other factors, caused her to drop out of the program several times over the past ten years.
But the program was still there, waiting for her return, and when she returned last February, she was determined to finish. She said the flexibility of the HiSET class helped her.
“I was very dedicated and sometimes came twice a day. You can come to any class of your choice. I would go to the morning class or I would choose the evening class. It was whenever I was available,” she said. “There are a lot of opportunities, you just have to want it.”
The HiSET classroom provides a family environment where students become close and help each other achieve success. Burch said when someone stops coming to class, there are usually other students calling in to check on them.
She also said many graduates return to visit and receive help with college applications and more.
Now Gray returns to the class as a graduate who serves as an example to those who are still traveling.
One of these students is 18-year-old Xavier Dilbeck.
Dilbeck started the HiSET program after her homeschool credits weren’t transferable to public school.
“I was forced to go this route and it was great, like I was saying to Elise, I just feel like I was meant to come here,” he said.
Dilbeck, who hopes to attend Bible college and continue the ministry, said the small class sizes and the people he met during his six months at HiSET gave him a deeper educational experience.
Dilbeck and Gray named Burch herself as an asset to the class as a source of supportive strength and encouragement both inside and outside of the classroom.
“Every time you take a test, she says, ‘You get it!’ or “As soon as you’re done, call me and tell me how it went,” Gray said.
Burch said the class is more than a job for her, but it’s also an expression of her faith.
The majority of students in the class are those who have aged out of foster care, single mothers, those who struggle with mental illness, or who have gone through major life hurdles.
There are many tools, resources, and others that help Burch in his quest to help others, and Gray is proof that all of these factors work together for those who need help. One step in the right direction puts someone on the path to a better life.
Gray took this step years ago when she entered Birthright of Hannibal as a young pregnant woman, where she received throughout her pregnancy and beyond; they also directed her to HiSET.
Burch, who is also Birthright’s director, said the HISET program works in coordination with Birthright to help fund the education of single mothers. She also named GAMM, a program in La Belle, Mo., as a contributor to the program’s success by supporting young adults in the program.
“I want to thank Elaine Miller, Dana Keller, Stan Choate, Dwight Beyars and Rexenne Lowes for their work with the students and their contribution to the success of the program,” she said.
As for Gray, she broke her family mold as the first of three children to graduate.
School is a priority in Gray’s household, and his children learn they can outwit the odds. Especially her 11-year-old son who Gray says supported her throughout the trip.
Then she stared at the ceiling for a moment, and through her tears Gray commented, “Dreams really do come true.”
Those interested in getting their high school equivalency in or around Hannibal can go to maconael.com to sign up for free classes. If you are interested in volunteering as a tutor or have any questions, please contact Elise Burch at 573-541-9305 or Lydia McClellan, Director of Adult Education at 660-385-2158.