For 60 years, the James H. Groves Adult High School has been available throughout Delaware for students of all ages to earn their high school diploma or GED or to learn English through an ESL program. “We are in the business of second chances,” said Kelly L. Whaley, supervisor of adult education for Sussex County Vocational Technical School District. “For some students, it’s a third or fourth chance.”
Kim Banks, coordinator of ESL, GED and ABE (adult basic ed) in Sussex County, said, “The challenges these students have overcome are amazing — barriers such as homelessness, transportation, drug addiction, domestic abuse, bullying in the regular system… They find a home here. Our self-paced program takes the pressure off. They see a class of people just like them.”
GED Earner Jair Cabrera with his family, Class of 2023
Whaley said, “Each class becomes like family. We cheer for each other when someone finishes a class. When they finish all the requirements, we bring in cake and the class gets to celebrate with the student. Some tell me no one has ever given them a cake, never celebrated an accomplishment.”
The Groves Adult High school program has locations throughout the state. The Sussex County location is based at Sussex Tech with satellite locations throughout the county because of transportation barriers that students face.
The school opened in 1964, named for the first State Superintendent of Schools in Delaware. The program was aimed at students from age 16 up for whom, for whatever reason, day school did not work.
The oldest student was a World War II veteran, age 85, now deceased. Banks said, “Mr. Donald was such an inspiration — an 85-year-old doing algebra. He inspired his classmates. They thought, ‘If he can do it, I can, too’.”
Joyce Sessoms graduated from Groves in 1971. She said it was not acceptable back in 1967 for “a chocolate girl in an all white school” to stay in school when pregnant. Sessoms is grateful that Groves was available, so close and affordable — free! She and her classmates were never made to feel they had done something wrong, she said. “If the program had not been there, the outcome might have been much different for me.”
After getting her diploma, she went on to Del Tech, then Wilmington University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She became a high school guidance counselor.
At 72, Sessoms wants to be a role model for her grandchildren and for students. She retired 10 years ago and right away opened the ARK Educational Resource Center in Laurel, a nonprofit, K-12 after-school tutoring program. Laurel High School and Del Tech send peer tutors, but there is a waiting list of potential students. If you can help, call Sessoms at 302-715-5318.
Ethel Cook graduated from Groves in 1989 at the age of 79. She was then the oldest ever to graduate. Her youngest son, Dan Cook, recalls that he taught her class when she was a senior. “She had a heart attack and made me come to the hospital to teach her the lessons she was missing,” he said.
At one time Cook ran Ethel’s Bait and Tackle from a shack in her back yard near Pilottown Road in Lewes. “She raised 10 kids and half the neighborhood,” Dan said. His mother had only completed junior high. Although in poor health — she was a brittle diabetic and had fought off a stroke and Parkinson’s disease — she went back to school in her 70s. “She always said, ‘You are never too old to learn.’ She was a pretty special lady,” Dan said. “She did really well, made great grades, studied really hard.”
She missed her graduation. She was in the hospital, but they had an ambulance ready to take her to the ceremony. Unfortunately her doctor determined she was too sick to go. Shortly after graduation she had both legs amputated.
Graduating meant so much to her, Dan continued. When she passed away in 1992, she was buried with her class ring, holding her diploma.
The family established the Ethel M. Cook Memorial Scholarship in her honor. “We’ve given scholarships to a lot of really nice kids who have gone on to college or helped out with family,” Dan said.
Kathy Tucker quit school at 16 and had a baby. Tucker recalls deciding she could do something more than work in a fast food restaurant, and so she enrolled in the adult education program.
President George H. W. Bush spoke about her at her graduation ceremony in 1991, saying she had promised herself she’d finish high school when her own son started kindergarten. “It took a little longer, but she kept that promise. And today she collects her diploma, and she shows her three kids just what happens when you set a goal and refuse to let circumstance stand in your way. Now she’s a living portrait, if you will, in self-determination and what it means to want an education so much that you’ll work for it, you’ll sacrifice for it, and you’ll get it.”
Tucker said, “Groves is amazing. I never regret going there. I think if anyone wants to go back to school, that’s the place to go. They do everything for you. I would not be where I am today if I had not (gone there). Afterwards, I went to Del Tech and got my nursing degree.” Tucker worked at what is now TidalHealth Nanticoke for 27 years and is now an RN at Lofland Park Center in Seaford.
Another student, Chanteea Harmon, said, “The Groves program tremendously changed my life. I dropped out of school at 17. I knew about the Groves program, but I put it off for years. Life happened. I had my own business cleaning houses, but I was not living up to who could be. One day I decided it was my time. While in the program, I became an advocate for adult ed. I talk to kids about my struggles. I tell them, ‘You have to be your biggest cheerleader and see yourself where you want to be.’”
Harmon envisioned herself speaking to the Class of 2014, and she did get to speak at the 50th commencement ceremony. She is now coordinator of the driver’s ed program and working on a bachelor’s degree. “My ultimate goal is to go back to adult ed as a basic ed teacher and give back to students like me.”
A high school diploma is not the end for these students. Many go on to college, post-secondary training or the military. Whaley noted, “We always like to ask, “ Now that you have your diploma, what’s next’?”
The school values community partnerships with libraries, school districts, and organizations such as Jusst Sooup in Milton, where GED classes have just started.
Registrations for adult education programs are held once a month, so students can enroll throughout the year. For more information, visit www.sussexvt.org/adulted, call 302-853-1440 or stop by the school at Sussex Tech, 17099 County Seat Highway in Georgetown.