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Teacher’s dedication, community support keep HiSet classes going

Donna Brown teaches high school equivalency courses (now known as HiSet) on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in a customized classroom provided by the Hannibal Housing Authority. She considers this project to be her personal ministry. This is her 19th year in this role. Contributed photo.


Donna Brown, a retired Palmyra school teacher, began teaching high school equivalency courses (now known as HiSet) in Hannibal 19 years ago, after retiring from her teaching job. During the ensuing years she has been witness to many societal changes, some of which have led to a reduction in the need for such classes.

Classes that used to consist of 40 students, may now seat only four.

She started to think, earlier this year, that the current class load may be her last. After all, she has passed the time-honored age of 70. Maybe it was her time to put her pencils away.

“I toyed with the idea of stopping,” she said, when her current class concludes in March. “The classes are getting smaller,” she rationalized, thinking maybe it was her time to step down. “But then I was asked to read a Scripture at church. (Genesis 11:27-32).” Abram received his calling at age 70. “I looked at the people at church that morning. You know how Scripture touches, if that isn’t God speaking through Scripture…”

She considers teaching high school equivalency courses to be her personal ministry. 

So her ministry continues.

She receives no financial compensation for teaching her twice-a-week, half day classes. Instead, she receives stipends and donations to cover the basic costs of what she calls “keeping the doors open.

“Since 2014 or 15, the Hannibal public school district financially couldn’t keep supporting, so they dropped the program,” Donna said.

That’s when she stepped up on her own to keep the program in place.

“I have an army of individuals who care enough and know how important it is.  They contribute to the cost.”

For example, Mike Pipkin and the Hannibal Housing Authority. “They took unit 26, gutted it and have made me a super, super nice classroom.They provide the building. All I have to do is provide needs, such as textbooks.”

She also has a working relationship with Rachel Bringer Shepard, one of her former students, who is now presiding judge for the 10th Judicial District.

“She contacted me. She requires those who don’t have (a high school equivalency diploma), as part of getting off probation, to get one.

“That requirement made a lot of people get their high school equivalency diploma, and now they understand the importance of it.

“I get a stipend from the courts, I use that to buy supplies, paper, pencils, calculators, food, snacks.”

Then there are individuals, such as the late Mary Jane Gregory. “Bless her, on her own, she went to ladies groups and she told them I was out on my own. Those ladies groups, and several organizations, continue to support me. Their money is the money I use to provide scholarships for my students. I use their contributions to pay for their testing, which is a little over $100.

“I have people walk up to me at Walmart. Next thing I know they are handing me money. Or I receive a check in the mail. It’s a wonderful thing, living small town,” with people who care.

She went to her mailbox this week. “Literally, there sat a box of pencils from Amazon. Somebody ordered me pencils.”

Early days

Donna remembers back to the time when Dura closed its doors in Hannibal. Employees had previously worked for Rivcon (Rival), during the era of the Vietnam war. The pay was good, she said, so these young people quit school in order to go to work.

“Then Dura pulled out, and these workers, now in their 40s, 50s and 60s, didn’t have a high school diploma necessary to get another job.

“There was a period of time when General Mills and the Hospital wouldn’t hire anyone without” a high school equivalency diploma.

“Dura moved out in stages. I probably had between 160 and 200 go through the program in that three-year span.”

These adults quickly realized that going back to school was hard. “It’s school; you have to study and take tests.”

About half would step away from the program. “Sometimes they’d step away two or three times before they come back to stay.”

The high school equivalency program consists of five tests:

Reading, language arts, which is in two parts; science, social students, and math. 

Students are tested over English skills, commas, punctuation, sentence structure, and then tied to that test is a five-paragraph essay. “You have to pass both parts,” Donna said.

For math, “You are tested on basic skills of math, then fractions, higher math, decimals and percents, then Algebra I and II, and geometry. And they have put in a couple of trig questions,” Donna said.

“They only get to use a calculator with four functions,” she said. This has been my major complaint to testing services.  A high school math student gets to use a multi-function calculator, including a fraction key and a percent key; but my students must learn

how to convert, reduce, and work those types of problems the ‘old-fashioned’ way without a calculator.”

Most students want to complete the course in order to obtain a better job.

One former student was a CNA, and went on to get a nursing degree. She is now a nurse in Columbia.

Home schooling

Another demographic she serves includes home schooled students.

“Some of my students are home schooled; they think when the program ends, they're good, they are finished. They don’t understand you have to pass a high school equivalency test to get your diploma.

“They try to take the test and they can’t pass it.

“Home schooling parents need to understand students do have to pass a high school equivalency test. I get two or three of these students a year. The test is a stickler for language arts skills and math.”

In addition to teaching the skills necessary to pass the tests, “I am a mentor, a sounding board, a counselor. You try to do what you can,” to help these students succeed.

“I think God put me in this place. There were a lot of other things I could have done; this door opened up, and now, I’m 19 years into it.”

Her current four students have completed the first four parts of the testing, and are currently studying math. 

“Typically, that’s where everybody needs the most help,” she said. “I’m pretty confident they will pass it.”

For those interested in the program, contact Donna Brown at (573) 406 3479. The next class will begin in June, and will conclude in December.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired in 2014, after working for the Hannibal Courier-Post for 39 years.


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