Learning Model

Margo Hudson got a second chance at her education. Now she helps others follow her path as a tutor. But the route to a GED diploma is about to get thorny.

This is not Margo Hudson as I usually see her.

Instead of her black housekeeping uniform, she is wearing a tailored light-gray suit. A chiffon scarf — in shades of lavender, navy blue and cream — cascades from her neck. Double-loop silver earrings frame her face, which is knitted in concentration as she sits at the table and leans in to hear the young woman finish reading in a soft, halted voice.

"That's great," Margo says, then taps a pearly pink fingernail on the worksheet in front of her. "Now, let me check your answers and see how you did."

Margo sees me and her face breaks into the smile that has greeted thousands of travelers at the United Club at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, where she has worked as a housekeeper for seven years. She motions for me to sit next to her and returns to the tutoring lesson.

After seven years as a student at Seeds of Literacy on West 25th Street in Cleveland — and several failed exams — Margo has earned her GED diploma. She is now one of Seeds of Literacy's more than 200 volunteer tutors. They help more than 1,000 students a year.

"I have to do this," she says. "I enjoy giving back. I share my story a lot so they don't get discouraged. Even with some of my co-workers, I tell them, 'If I can get my GED, so can you.' "

Executive director Bonnie Entler, standing nearby, smiles.

"Former students are our best recruiters," Entler says. "I'm so proud of Margo. She never gave up."

I met Margo several years ago after joining Continental Airlines' Presidents Club at Cleveland's airport. (It became the United Club after the two airlines merged.) For an annual fee, travelers hang out at the bar or in leather chairs or cubicles, snacking while they catch up on work. Recently, I've noticed more women and people of color in the club, but it's still mostly populated with white businessmen.

Margo is the kind middle-aged woman bustling in anonymity as she grabs up their crumpled wrappers and empty coffee cups. She flutters around customers whose eyes are glued to smartphones, computers or one of several newspapers provided free at the door.

Many never seem to see her unless they want something. In the six years I've been stopping in, I've never seen her lose her temper or register a customer's rudeness.

"People are very busy when they come through there," she told me over a recent lunch at Superior Pho in Cleveland. "And many of them are so nice to me. One man is constantly bringing me books he thinks I should read. Another customer" — her hands rushed to her cheeks — "another customer sent me flowers when I passed my GED."

Margo grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a family full of abuse and heartbreak. "No one really cared what was happening to me," she said. "I had to leave." She dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and moved to Cleveland to work for the Job Corps. For the next two decades, her life was one low-paying job after another.

Before she started working at the club, Margo was hired to clean airplanes after they landed.

A few months into the job, she made a promise to herself.

"I kept applying for jobs I couldn't get because I didn't have a high school degree," Margo says. "It bothered me that I didn't have a GED. I didn't want to clean planes for the rest of my life. I had to do something about it.

"One day I was watching my colleagues talk and play cards while we waited for planes to land and I thought, I could use this time to study. I could use that time to work toward my degree."

She was 45 at the time.

An estimated 44 percent of Cuyahoga County residents, including 66 percent of Cleveland residents, have low literacy skills.

Seeds of Literacy offers stark examples of what that means. Job applications often stop you at the door. Even if you get the job, the lack of a high school diploma reduces your earning potential by as much as 42 percent. Bus schedules, crucial for those who depend on public transportation to get to work on time, are mysterious jumbles of information. Instructions on medicine bottles are indecipherable codes, potentially imperiling lives.

Then there is the cost of low literacy — for all of us. Kent State University's Ohio Literacy Resource Center cites a United Way study estimating that U.S. taxpayers pay $20 billion annually in lost wages, profits and productivity.

The student that Margo was tutoring the day I visited the literacy center told me she had graduated from high school but was quickly in over her head in community college. She told Margo she needed a "refresher course," but it was heartbreakingly clear that she struggled with the words on the page.

Margo was an avid reader, but it took years of work to earn her GED diploma. Until she did, she knew she was doomed to earn much less than those who graduated from high school. That took an emotional toll.

"It always bothered me that I didn't have that degree," Margo says. "You just feel like you're not living up to your potential, and there are so many jobs out of reach."

She'd tried other literacy programs, but the one-on-one tutoring at Seeds of Literacy made the difference, she said. So did marriage to her cheerleading husband, Dale Hernlund, and a doctor's diagnosis of her learning disability, which doubled the time she was allowed to take tests.

Her eyes begin to tear when she remembers the phone call last spring "that changed my life."

"I was riding on the bus to work when one of my tutors called to tell me I had passed," she says, clutching her neck. "I had passed the GED."

Her colleagues at the United Club bought a cake.

Learning is contagious, Margo says. "Once I got my GED I started learning other things, too. It's like something just keeps growing inside you."

She is experimenting with recipes and is learning how to make metal jewelry. Recently, she watched a YouTube video to learn how to knit.

Disheartening changes are on the horizon for others who want to earn their GEDs in Ohio.

Starting in 2014, the American Council on Education, which owns the GED tests, will triple the fee, from $40 to $120. The number of testing centers in the state will drop from 99 to 40. Students will have to take the GED tests on computers. A large percentage of students seeking high school equivalency do not own a computer, nor do they know how to use one. They must learn not only how to type, but how to think at a keyboard.

So far, the Ohio Department of Education has done nothing to intervene. If the state fails to act, literacy groups are clear on the negative impact.

In 2011, roughly 20,000 Ohioans took the GED tests, and almost three out of four passed. Groups such as Seeds of Literacy predict a steep decline in that number once next year's changes take effect.

Fewer people passing the tests means fewer people enjoying all the improvements in their lives Margo has enjoyed, the changes that flow from newly minted confidence and the thrill of learning.

Margo is setting fresh goals for herself. She has applied for a new job at the airport. "I'd like to pack the food for planes," she says.

"Eventually, I'd like to be a gate agent."

She laughs when I point out that agents put up with a lot of grumpy customers.

"They're frustrated," she says, waving her hand dismissively. "You have to listen to them, let them get it off their chests. Then you get to help them."

She smiles again. "I'd like that, helping all those people," she says. "I'd really, really like that."

Share this story: