Editor's Note

This story was awarded third place in the Society of Professional Journalists Region 10 contest in the category Personalities Reporting.

Teacher Ellen Guettler stands at a classroom white board, earnestly drawing diagrams to demystify English grammar for a half-dozen young men, some wearing ripped jeans and tattoos, some looking interested.

She may not look like a miracle worker. But then Guettler flashes her sunny smile, bright enough to make even the most discouraged high school dropout, slacker dude or teenage mom believe, yes, I can learn this. I can earn a GED. I can build myself a better future.

“Excellent!” Guettler says when a student tentatively offers an idea for an essay or identifies a dangling modifier. “You got it — perfect!”

It looks like she has a burnout job, being coordinator of the Adult Basic Education and Literacy (ABEL) program. Most of adults she teaches face tough obstacles to learning.

“A lot of them have heart-wrenching stories,” Guettler said.

She has taught homeless teens, abused women, guys just getting out of jail, an ex-stripper, a teen with a meth-addict dad, immigrants struggling to learn English, adults with a second-grade reading level, laid-off construction workers, war veterans and people who didn’t graduate from high school because of bullying, depression, learning disabilities, drugs or alcohol addiction.

Probably not most teachers’ idea of a dream job.

“I love my job,” Guettler said. “I think my heart has always leaned toward at-risk kids.”

Nearly every student, even the home-schooled, walks in having suffered from some kind of hurtful label, she said. In her classroom, people aren’t labeled.

“I try to honor and respect the student from a place of real integrity,” she said.

The ABEL program, which offers a free education, has grown dramatically since Guettler was first hired nine years ago. Before her, five people had held the low-paying, part-time job in five years. She started out as the lone staffer, working in the back half of a math classroom in the Bridger Alternative Program, carrying her teaching materials in a Rubbermaid tub.

“It was a rough start,” she said. “We’ve come a long way.”

During her tenure, the program has tripled in size, from teaching 94 students a year to about 330 today.

Just 34 students earned their GEDs her first year. By last year the number of successful graduates shot up to 128.

rdeen Warwood, coordinator of Adult and Community Education for the Bozeman schools and Guettler’s boss, said she found grants to support the program and under Guettler, “It took off. People were attracted (because) she cared.”

Warwood credited Guettler with the adult education program’s success and growth. “She is a miracle worker.”

Bozeman’s adult education today has three teachers, a bank of computers for students to use, and 50 community volunteers trained to tutor adults learning English, who come from countries from Mexico to Thailand.

State and federal grants and a local property tax levy pay for the program. The Bozeman School District helped it grow by giving it a home, in a small house on Durston Road for several years, and for the last two years in the upstairs west wing of Willson School.

Each June, hundreds of proud families turn out for the GED graduation ceremony that Guettler started. Held in Bozeman High’s South Gym, it’s like the high school graduation the students never had, complete with a school official calling out each name and handing out a scrolled certificate and a tassel. Friends and families cheer, blast air horns and shoot photos.

Teacher Sarah Ghicadus has shared the work with Guettler the past three years, teaching mainly math and computer skills, while Guettler teaches English skills.

“I love it,” Ghicadus said “Every day we see lives changed in profound ways.”

Students often come in saying “’I hate math, I can’t do math,’” Ghicadus said. And then when they solve a problem, she sees a spark of confidence in their faces, the feeling that “’I’m not stupid.’ It’s exciting to see.”

A lot of the program’s success comes from Guettler’s ability to connect with students, Ghicadus said, and to show students they can do it.

“Ellen’s a very compassionate individual and a passionate individual,” Ghicadus said. “I compare her to Mother Teresa…. She’s like the heart and soul of this program, she really is.”

Students can range in age up to 60, but half the program’s students are 16 to 19 years old, Guettler said.

“Their parents come in weeping and crying, because their kids are failing or drug addicted or pregnant,” she said. “A lot of our role is to lovingly support the student.”

Guettler said she comforts parents by telling them the ABEL program has helped lots of kids just like theirs. She tells them, “There’s hope.”

No giving up

Debbie Kern, 56, a former real estate saleswoman, already has her high school diploma, but she came to ABEL to improve her math and writing skills to pursue her dream of earning an associate’s degree and becoming a legal secretary.

“I am here because I’m tired of working crappy jobs where you’re not respected,” Kern said. The adult education program has been, she said, “Just wonderful. Heaven-sent.”

Fighting tears, Kern said the teachers have been “so helpful, so welcoming.” She called them “my angels.”

“There’s no judging,” she said. “They didn’t notice my age. All they noticed was my interest in bettering myself.”

The teachers are upbeat and know every student by name, Kern said. “Their dedication to education and to the people here is so strong, giving up is not an option.”

Clemente Arciga, 32, a high school dropout, knows the exact date he earned his GED — Dec. 16.

“It’s a very important date for me,” Arciga said. “One of the biggest accomplishments of my whole life.”

Without a diploma or GED, he was rejected by the Marines and didn’t qualify for a lot of jobs. He worked construction for years.

“Because I got my GED, I’m a full-time student at MSU,” Arciga said. Studying psychology at Montana State University, his goal is to become a counselor. It also set a good example for his four children, he said.

He recalled one day when Guettler drove to the east side of town so one student without a car wouldn’t miss the GED test. “Wow,” he said. “That’s not just a job.”

Kyle Claussen, 19, a restaurant dishwasher, said he dropped out of Manhattan High School after getting in too many fights. He earned his GED Oct. 18, “the best thing I could have done.”

“For me, it was kind of lifting the world off your shoulders,” Claussen said.

Guettler “is a phenomenal lady,” he said. She works with each student one-on-one.

“They work with everyone on such a level field, instead of looking down their noses,” Claussen said. “They work with you until you got it.

“That lady is very, very kind-hearted.”

Jessica Bennett, 29, served as a sergeant in the Iraq War in 2003. Now living in Belgrade and raising three young children, she’s polishing her writing and math skills so she can start college and get a better job as a nurse. Bennett said in one month, she raised her math skills from a fourth-grade to 12th-grade level.

Annika Pike, 16, said she attended high school in Bozeman and Belgrade but dropped out.

“I was sick of the drama with people — a lot of fighting, drugs, alcohol,” Pike said. She came to adult education, thinking of just getting her GED and going to cosmetology school.

But Guettler and Ghicadus encouraged her to dream bigger, and helped raise her math scores. Now Pike is planning to go to college and study nursing.

“I’m smarter than I thought,” Pike said. “My dad, he’s ecstatic I’m going to college.”

Seeing joy

Born 49 years ago and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., Guettler and her twin sister were the youngest in an Irish Catholic family of 11 kids. Her dad was a State Farm insurance agent and her mother a homemaker.

At 18, Guettler volunteered to work in a colonia or slum outside Mexico City, where desperately poor families lived in dirt-floor shacks and survived by combing through trash in the city dump.

She helped start a women’s cooperative and a recreation program for 90 kids. She taught reading and basic math to children who flunked kindergarten. She recalled “the joy you could see in themselves when they finally got it.”

“It was a very powerful experience,” Guettler said. “It made me see how education could transform people’s lives.”

Guettler graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a bachelor’s degree and later earned a master’s in education there.

For 12 years she worked in California as a bilingual teacher. She and her husband, Kevin, now a math teacher at Sacajawea Middle School, had two sons.

When Kevin, born in Montana, wanted to move someplace with seasons and skiing, they chose Bozeman. Ellen was impressed by public schools that offered a private-school quality education. In California, schools had cut out things like music years ago.

She and a partner started a music, movement and foreign language program for children called Music Lingua. And then the ABEL job came up, and Guettler found her niche.

Guettler said she loves the moments when an adult student “finds the learner within themselves,” or says, “’Whoa, I never knew I was that smart.’

“That’s the beauty of working with adults,” she said. “Once they know that learner is within them, that self-motivation just takes off.”

Dreams

The walls of Willson School classroom 228 are decorated with inspiring words — “Dream. Believe. Succeed” – cut out by hand from colored paper and adorned with stars.

Now Guettler is working to get students to dream beyond the beyond the GED.

This week, she’s taking students up to MSU to visit the Gallatin College Programs. The growing two-year college program offers job training like welding and will soon start two-year associates degrees, a stepping-stone to better jobs or four-year degrees.

“In the old days, the GED was the goal,” Guettler said. That’s changing, as the federal government pushes the idea that students need more than a high-school level education to succeed in the 21st century.

Guettler is also trying to get the word out to anyone thinking of earning a GED that the old test will end on Dec. 30, 2013, and be replaced by a new, more rigorous and more expensive test. Instead of answering multiple-choice questions, students will have to fill in blanks. As of 2014, any student who hasn’t passed all five parts of the old GED test will have to start from scratch with the new test.

This summer, Guettler and Ghicadus plan to offer summer school. And they want to make the June 7 GED graduation ceremony the best ever, by finding graduation gowns for all the students to wear.

“I really feel everyone in society, there’s a place for everyone,” Guettler said. “We need to cultivate a place for them. Fulfill their dreams.”

And then she flashes that smile.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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