Suzanne Elston, director of Chattanooga State Community College's adult education program
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Chattanooga State Community College's entrance is pictured in this Google photo.

Suzanne Elston's voice fills with emotion when she talks about adult education. The Chattanooga State Community College's adult education director hosted the school's final GED graduation Thursday.

"Everyone in this program cares very deeply," she said. "What a great honor it has been to work in this field."

More than 100 people earned their GED from the school since December. About 57 of them participated in the graduation Thursday.

Chattanooga State provided adult education for 29 years, but after June 30, funding to Chattanooga State for the program and the 35 adult education classes that Chattanooga State offers will dry up.

The new adult education provider is The Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Athens.

Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development officials said new Chattanooga area locations for adult education are still being finalized. The Chattanooga Career Center is expected to be one of the sites, according to Chris Cannon, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Former Harriet Tubman resident Jeremy Burgess, 24, stood among 57 scholars participating in Chattanooga State's final graduation Thursday.

"Graduating opens opportunity and possibilities," he said. He wants to become a dental hygienist and work in real estate.

His formal education ended at third grade, because he relocated so many times during his youth.

But he continued learning by reading books and watching his older sister, who earned her GED. He did so well in the GED classes that he helped other students with algebra, and Chattanooga State named him one of its two final Outstanding Students of the Year.

"Growing up, me and my sisters didn't go to school at all. We kept moving from one location to another," said Burgess. "I don't even know what they teach nowadays in public school. I just read. Education is not limited to school alone. You can get education anywhere on this planet."

Chattanooga State officials say they are very sad to not offer the education program in the future, but the Department of Labor had restructured the program and decreased its 40 adult education service areas to eight districts.

The reduction is expected to bring the department's administration costs from $3.15 million to $2 million.

The restructuring expanded the service area that included Chattanooga to include nearly 10 counties. Chattanooga State officials said they didn't think they had the capacity to accommodate such a large testing area and so they didn't apply to be a provider, Elson said.

The Northside Neighborhood House will continue offering adult education classes, but it can't replace the void that Chattanooga State will leave, said Heather Jones, chief programs officer of Northside Neighborhood House.

The non-profit accommodates about 20 students for its adult basic education program. After that, students will have to go on a waiting list, she said.

In comparison, Chattanooga State had more than 100 students earn their GED in the past six months.

Lori Hairrell, former executive director of Re:Start Center for Adult Education, said she is very concerned. Changes within the Department of Labor led to her program ending its adult education program in 2013.

"My biggest question is, if we indeed want people to go into college careers, what void is this going to leave long term in our community," she said. "If they can't get the credentials, and the credentials opens the door, where is this lack of access to that credential going to leave us as a community in the long run?"

The Highland Park Adult Basic Education site closed Thursday. The last day for providing adult basic education on Chattanooga State's East campus is Tuesday, giving adult education staff time to wind down by June 30.

Chattanooga State operated the program with one full-time instructor and 25 adjunct instructors. To continue working in adult education, all of them will have to reapply for jobs through The Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Athens.

Said Jones of the Northside Neighborhood House, "I feel really bad for the students interested in working to get their GED, because it seems like there is much limited opportunity to participate in classes to prepare I hope there will be other sites throughout Hamilton County."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.