Adán and Donavan Hernandez complete class work during a session of HEP at Nyssa High School. (The Enterprise/LILIANA FRANKEL).

NYSSA – Despite its special purpose, the high school equivalency program classroom at Nyssa High School looks just like the rest.

That was deliberate for what is known in shorthand as HEP, according to Hector Aguirre, the program director at Treasure Valley Community College. 

“We were able to get a classroom inside the main building, instead of one outside,” he said. “That’s helped us to maintain our attendance and engagement.” 

The eight HEP students are former members of Nyssa’s migrant education program who are choosing to pursue a GED rather than a traditional high school diploma. Instead of taking a GED class on TVCC’s campus, the college is providing a class in a familiar setting, Nyssa High School. 

While enrolled in the GED, HEP students can take elective Nyssa High School classes, attend prom, and if they keep their grades up, play on the school’s sports teams. Though a variety of personal circumstances once made high school a challenge for these students, HEP intends to see them thrive. 

Angelica Ibarra hopes that getting a GED will position her to continue her studies to become a nurse, which she started at a technical high school in Mexico. At 18, she’s already mastered skills like how to draw blood and the basics of caring for older adults, but her education was interrupted when circumstances forced her to immigrate to live with her uncles in Nyssa. Despite the experience she brought to the classroom, Ibarra struggled at Nyssa High School, where the language of instruction was English. 

As a recent arrival to the country, Ibarra still speaks only Spanish.

“The grades that I was getting weren’t going to help me graduate,” she said in her native language.

In HEP, classes are still taught entirely in English, but teacher Dalila Garza and most of Ibarra’s classmates are bilingual. 

Garza said that the students have taken on interpreting for Ibarra during lessons. 

“I love the way that they are learning to support each other,” she said. 

“The teachers are good,” Ibarra said, citing Garza and her colleagues as one of the main sources of support helping her in the program. 

“They’re great, they’re very smart,” said Garza of the students. “They haven’t lost any of the information that their high school teachers have given them, and it’s really impressive because some of them are coming in with a lot of knowledge. If we tested them tomorrow, they’d probably pass.”

Donavan Hernandez, 17, appreciates HEP for its efficiency. This would have been his senior year, but with credits left to complete, an on-time graduation was not assured.

“I chose the GED route because I didn’t want to take high school for another year,” he said. “Because I feel like it would’ve held me back and I wouldn’t have been able to move on with my life, and with the GED I feel like I’ll be able to get out of high school this year.”

Hernandez said that while virtual school during the Covid pandemic had been easier for him, the return to in-person school was a challenge. 

“This year, coming back to eight periods was more overwhelming,” he said. “Falling behind day after day, it was just hard for me to keep up with my other classes.” 

Hernandez said that he hoped to one day work in the food and beverage industry, whether that means in retail at a store or in a restaurant. But first, he’d like to take a couple of classes at TVCC.

“I wouldn’t immediately go into working. I was thinking about going to TVCC after my GED and then starting to work,” he said. 

Adán Hernandez, 18, is Donavan’s cousin and a fellow HEP student. He said he, too, hopes to go to TVCC, but then he’d like to continue at a four-year institution and study psychology, computer science and music theory.

“I just wanted to attend TVCC already,” he said. “As soon as I heard this class is by TVCC and you go into TVCC after it, I thought ‘Why not?’ It’s a good way to get a head start on the rest of my life after high school.”

HEP students get six free credits at TVCC if they complete the program. Aguirre said that for every major exam the students take during the program, they are brought to TVCC’s campus and given “a day of the full college student experience.”

“My principal goal, and that of all the staff, is that the students continue with CAMP,” Aguirre said, referring to the College Access Migrant Program, a scholarship for first-year students from migrant farmworker backgrounds. 

Adán Hernandez said that the pandemic had presented him with obstacles when it came to keeping his grades up. 

“When the pandemic hit and everything was on Zoom, I kind of fell off with my grades,” he said. “It was really hard to focus at home, I would get distracted by the smallest things. Homework was hard even when I was in real school. I just got off course.”

Aguirre and Garza said that situation was common among their students. 

Online school “just doesn’t work for everyone,” said Garza.

“A lot of (our students) were affected by the Covid pandemic, not necessarily by getting sick themselves, but it affected their routine where they were coming to school, doing their work,” she said. 

Garza said that some of her students have had difficult living situations exacerbated by the pandemic. School had been a safe space for students to focus on their own goals, and suddenly being at home all the time presented new challenges. 

For other students, meanwhile, perhaps home was the safe place, Garza acknowledged, and they have fear and discomfort related to being in the classroom.

“We’re trying to meet them where they are,” she said. “Trying to provide the opportunities for them to study while they feel best.”

To that end, Aguirre said that program staff were being flexible with attendance expectations, and students who are in quarantine or who have responsibilities like childcare for younger siblings tying them to the household can Zoom into class. 

“Despite whatever family situation they might be having, that spirit of perseverance is something that has motivated us to want to help them,” Aguirre said. 

Aguirre said that the desire to go to school is what makes the students so teachable. 

“They follow our advice, they follow the recommendations we give them,” he said. “And they’ve formed a group where they accompany one another and collaborate with each other.” 

“The human experience is people who overcome challenges to succeed,” said Nyssa High School Principal Brett Jackman. “Our role is to become (the students’) biggest fans and cheerleaders as they transition to the HEP program and then into the next phase of their life.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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