The Literacy Project graduates 53

  • Fifty-three people passed their HiSET this year, and 27 attended The Literacy Project’s graduation ceremony at Greenfield Community College. Contributed photo/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH

  • Teacher Elizabeth Byrne speaks at graduation ceremony for Literacy Project students at Greenfield Community College. Contributed photo/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH

  • Literacy Project Executive Director Judith Roberts speaks during a graduation ceremony for The Literacy Project students at Greenfield Community College. Contributed photo/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH

  • HiSET graduate Dylon Bourque Contributed photo/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH

  • HiSET graduate Theresa Gurley Contributed photo/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH

Staff Writer
Published: 11/6/2019 12:38:56 PM

GREENFIELD — When 59-year-old Theresa Gurley lost her manufacturing job a few years ago, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do.

“I had an eighth-grade education,” Gurley said. “I needed help, so I went to the Career Center to take a resume class. A lady there was talking about school and that you can’t lie about your grade level.”

The Greenfield resident said the next day she enrolled in classes at The Literacy Project.

Last month, Gurley walked across the stage at Greenfield Community College and received her HiSET (High School Equivalency Test), an alternative to a high school diploma and the GED, with the rest of her class.

Gurley said it was a long time coming, having studied for her HiSET for two years before she fell ill and had to take a year off.

“I went to a friend’s graduation and it inspired me to go back when I got better, so here I am,” she said with pride in her voice. “It took another two years, but it was worth it.”

Gurley said she originally quit school because “I didn’t want to go,” but when she had problems at home, she decided to get a job in manufacturing at 16 and had been working ever since.

“I never stayed in one job for long, but I worked in factories — it’s what I could do,” she said.

Nineteen-year-old Dylon Bourque, of Turners Falls, left high school after 10th grade.

“I was struggling with classes, failing, struggling with math, especially,” Bourque said. “I wanted my diploma, but I didn’t want to go back.”

Bourque found The Literacy Project, and within two years passed the HiSET and walked across the stage with Gurley and others. There were 53 graduates this year and 27 attended the ceremony.

“I had an amazing experience,” Bourque said. “I didn’t feel judged, and I was able to go at my own pace.”

Elizabeth Byrne, a teacher at The Literacy Project in Greenfield, said The Literacy Project holds classes in Greenfield, Northampton, Amherst, Ware and Orange. She said each year people work on their HiSET at different paces, but have the opportunity to receive their certificates together, just like they would at a high school graduation ceremony.

“It can take someone five years or five months, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We work with them for as long as it takes.”

Byrne said there are as many reasons that someone drops out of school as there are people who do so.

“This is a voluntary program — in rare cases, the court might make it a condition,” she said. “We work with social services agencies and the like so that people have information about us.

“We see that in all cases, something didn’t go quite according to plan,” she continued. “There might have been an interruption, trauma, addiction, incarceration, a move, something that threw the person off track. We get them back on track.”

Byrne said for older students it is sometimes a layoff from a factory job, and then they can’t get another job because they don’t have a high school diploma.

“We see students from 16 to 60 and older,” she said. “This is one of the most rewarding, most optimistic things I’ve ever done. These students are taking classes from trained, paid professional teachers, like me, just like they would in high school.”

Byrne said the most important job a teacher at The Literacy Project has is to believe in students the moment they walk through the doors.

“I tell them that I’m going to believe in them until they believe in themselves,” she said. “Many are nervous and unsure. They don’t know that they can do it, but we do.”

Byrne said to receive the HiSET, a student has to pass five tests: math, reading, writing, science and social studies.

“These aren’t easy tests,” she noted.

Many students take the tests at Greenfield Community College, Byrne said, so The Literacy Project thought it was appropriate to hold the ceremony there, as GCC is one of its partners.

“There are sometimes a million obstacles in these students’ ways,” she said. “We make sure to help them get over them or remove them so they can move on with their lives.”

She said The Literacy Project provides advisors who not only help students find the path they want to travel, but find other help they might need to do so, like social services they need to make their journey more comfortable.

“I didn’t think I could do it,” Gurley said. “But The Literacy Project proved me wrong. I finally finished on Oct. 4 and graduated on Oct. 24. I finally reached that milestone, and my sister and her husband, who I hadn’t seen in three years, and some friends were there. I was even one of the speakers.”

Gurley said she’s thinking about becoming a recovery coach as she is a recovered alcoholic.

“I definitely have a different outlook now,” Bourque said. “I’m just going to see where this journey takes me. I think my next step is to take classes at GCC.”

Literacy Project Executive Director Judith Roberts said she is proud of every graduate. She said they all “work so hard,” and that she sees the success of each student as they walk across the stage.

“It’s the greatest reward,” she said. “Our students are the real heroes. They’re so courageous to overcome all of the barriers they do. They face their fears and push through. It takes incredible motivation.”

Roberts said working for the HiSET is not the “easy way out.”

“Many are parents and are also working,” she said. “What a wonderful example they are setting for their children. And, when all is done, they are better able to help their children through school.”

She said one man who was sitting in the audience at the recent graduation was so enthused — he “clapped so much for every graduate” — that his hands were red and puffy by the end of the night.

“It’s just so uplifting for everyone,” she said.

The Literacy Project receives 60 percent of its funding for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the rest from foundations and private donors. Volunteers tutor students, work in the classroom one-on-one and help with anything individual students might need.

To donate or volunteer, visit

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