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Amy Ballard

Working together and celebrating victories

 Amy Ballard

Adult Education Coordinator, The Helms Academy

Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia


The Helms Academy is a free program that helps anyone 18 and older get connected to high school equivalency testing. Amy Ballard is based at Helms’ West Philadelphia location, at Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. (There is an additional location at Temple University and three in South Jersey.) Helms also offers Pennsylvania’s 30 College Credit Option, in collaboration with the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), where students can begin taking college courses and—after completing 30 credits—also receive their high school diploma. Helms convenes courses, and also provides tutoring and workshops for additional student support, relying heavily on volunteer tutors from Drexel and the community. Since the program is self-paced and students create their own schedules, tutors provide individualized support.


Though she wears many hats, her primary role is the teacher and encourager. She works to ensure students feel supported, celebrating victories and helping with goal planning so students are coming with a purpose. She says: “If you can’t see the progress, it can be easy to give up. Part of my role is to remind the students of things they are moving toward.” 


She also spends a substantial amount of time connecting with other resources around the city, emphasizing: “It is so important for all of us to be working together.” She views adult education as not just a handout to a learner, but something that affects everybody—whole communities—as it impacts the workforce, families, and communities. This includes better outcomes for kids whose parents spend more time reading with them and engaging in their schoolwork. She works with a range of organizations, whether they focus on English as a second language (ESL), GED, or computer literacy; they can all work together to best serve adult learners and their diverse needs and interests. If one is not the best fit for a student, they can refer people to each other. The ultimate goal is focused on the learner.


She started her career in social work, before moving into teaching ESL. Beginning as a volunteer, she went to graduate school and then taught professionally. She has been a college writing teacher and curriculum writer. But she has always worked with adult learners, 18 and up, and loves seeing people be able to transform into their best selves. Relocating from New Jersey to Philadelphia, she was seeking new opportunities and found the Helms Academy, which had already been up and running at Drexel for several years, and wanted to get involved. She took the position in June 2019. 


Currently she is continuing to think about how to encourage more students to join. Despite some improvement, Philadelphia public school graduation rates remain low (about two-thirds). So there are a lot of people who still need their diploma to continue their journey; the question is how to reach them. For recruiting, she works with the network of partner organizations. Helms has also had success with a Refer and Earn program, where students refer friends to earn a Goodwill gift card, as people tend to trust word-of-mouth advice from a friend.


In the pandemic, she is also dealing with the digital divide. She is working to ensure not having a computer is not a barrier to engagement, keeping in contact with students by calling and sending out packets to keep them engaged. And for the longer term, she is supporting digital literacy efforts that will help people be connected and get ahead in the future.


She believes education is a human right, no matter how old you are, or whether or not you fit the classic mold of a “student.” She explains: “It’s easy to think of education as K-12, or Pre-K-12, but education belongs to all of us.”She is also a firm believer in multiple chances—that people come to different places in their life where they are ready to make changes or start something new. The students she works with are 18 to 68, including retirees trying to inspire their grandkids, parents racing their teenage kids to graduation, and young adults who have only recently left high school. She summarizes: “It’s everybody. And it’s not just about them, but about the community as a whole. Adult education affects everyone.”


The skills she uses include general people and customer service skills, but also the ability to have honest conversations—heart to hearts: “You need to be able to sit down with a student, talk about what’s going on and how we can progress forward. It’s one-on-one encouragement and pushing people ahead.” She also works to ensure she is convening students so they know they are not alone on their journey of independent learning. The tutors help: “Some will struggle on their own. It’s part of the work to present options and help them see there is no shame in it. When they work together as groups, they see that other people are doing this work as well. Everyone is on this journey with you and wants you to succeed.” The students she is serving are constantly changing, so it is also part of the job to innovate toward best meeting their needs.


To a counterpart at another institution, she says collaboration is her number-one piece of advice: “We have to be working together toward this common goal, not just in this for ourselves.” Working with adult learners, she is constantly surprised with the richness they bring to education: “It’s so different from education with younger students. Adults bring so much life experience and have a strong framework to work with. It’s a benefit to the teachers, and it also requires creativity to work with, to better engage the student with what they are learning.”

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