Nearly two years after the first brick was laid, the 4,100-square-foot, $500,000 addition to the Catoosa County Learning Center is all but finished.
"Work started (August 2007) and the state used prison labor to keep costs down," executive director Shirley Smith said. "Inmates built two-thirds of the project, then budget reasons caused the state to pull them off."
The Catoosa County Commission stepped up, providing $99,000 to finish the project to add classrooms, a kitchen/break room, offices and a space large enough for public meetings.
"The county has been very supportive," Mrs. Smith said.
The community is supportive of the center's mission to erase illiteracy, she said. The center has a reading program, GED programs and continuing education courses from Northwestern Technical College.
Since the program opened on Benton Place, several thousand students have completed programs, including beginning computer, parenting and English as a Second Language.
"We have all ages, from 16 to 77 and 78," GED instructor Donna Pierce said. "If we had another instructor, we could have more students."
The adult literacy program started in a room at the county school headquarters. When the school needed the space, the program needed a new home.
"I went to the commission and said, 'If we can raise the money, would you give us a piece of land?' and they said, 'Oh, sure,'" Mrs. Smith said. "I did the same thing with the bus."
Commissioner Ken Marks said supporting the center is supporting the community. He attended the center's first graduation last year.
"This helps put people back on the tax rolls," Mr. Marks said.
The business community has donated money to fund $500 scholarships for GED graduates who distinguish themselves, Mrs. Smith said. Last year, the center awarded four $500 scholarships.
On Wednesday, 2007 graduate of the year Bobby Feagans visited the center.
"These days you have to have an education to advance," said Mr. Feagans, who plans to earn an associate degree.
The cost of the GED test increased in recent years from $65 to $95. The test fee is one of the top barriers to earning the GED, Mrs. Smith said.
"We found that there are three things people cite for not getting their GEDs," she said. "They are cost of the test, child care and lack of transportation. We wanted to remove all of those barriers."
The center pays $65 of the cost of the test and has a scholarship fund for those who cannot pay the remaining $30. The CCL purchased a bus, and there is free child care on the site.
"If you don't have any money, come on down," she said. "If you have babies, bring them. If you don't have a ride, we'll come and get you."