Every so often, we hear about a teacher who has achieved a career milestone. Someone devotes 25 years to the education of children; another puts in 30 years teaching the same subject or grade level. These are certainly noteworthy accomplishments and recently I learned about one Fulton teacher who has reached a particularly impressive milestone. As this school year comes to an end, Renae (Cealie) Vehrs completes her 40th year as an educator.
I have known Renae since we were classmates at G. Ray Bodley High School. After graduating in 1973—hard to believe that was 45 years ago!—Renae earned her teaching degree at SUNY Oswego. Shortly after that, she began her 40 years as an Adult Education instructor. Today, Renae’s program is known as TASC, Test Assessing Secondary Completion, but most of us still call it the GED program. When it began in Fulton in 1978, Renae was its first teacher. Here’s how she remembers GED’s startup in our city:
“We first held the program at the old Fourth Street School building, and for a long time I was the only teacher. Then, in 1984, when I was expecting my first child, the district hired someone to take over. When I returned, they kept her on as a second teacher, and it was the two of us for a long time. After she moved away, the district approved hiring an aide, and we chose a student who had graduated from our GED program to fill that position.”
Eventually, Fourth Street School closed and Renae’s program was moved to the old Fulton Junior High, which today is the school district’s administration building. Over time, the school district brought on a second teacher, and then, in 1994, a third. As the program expanded, Renae and her co-teachers were serving more and more students.
“Because we are federally funded, there has never been any cost for our GED classes,” Renae explained, “and the process for adult learners to get help has not changed much over the years. We can take students as young as 16 and most people begin by stopping in or making a phone call to us. We register them and then they come in for diagnostic placement testing, which gives us a reading level and math level so we know where to begin. It also gives us a little bit of an outline on their specific math and reading skills.
“Almost every student I’ve worked with has told me how hard it was to make the initial appointment. For some, it has been many years since they were in school and it might be a bit embarrassing. Others aren’t sure what to expect if they do start. Will it be just like high school? How much time will they have to put in? Will they be able to keep up? But, once they enroll and register I tell them, ‘The hard part is over. Everyone is in the same boat here. This is an Adult Education Program and you will be treated like an adult.’
“People always want to know how long it is going to take for them to pass the GED test. This is hard to determine. It depends on their level when they start, their effort, and the amount of time they can put into it. It could take a week or it could take years. There is never any assigned homework, but a student can take work home if he or she chooses. The more time and effort people put into it, the sooner they can take the test and be able to pass.”
For many years, Renae and the other GED staff have sponsored an annual Adult Literacy Recognition luncheon. Not only are people who have received their diplomas honored, but those currently in the process are also recognized. “It shows those who are still working that it is possible to complete the program,” Renae explained. “We also always honor one student with a special award. This is not necessarily someone who has received his or her diploma, but someone who has done exceptional work or, perhaps, has overcome some obstacle.”
I was curious how many students have been through Fulton’s GED program and Renae had the numbers for me. “As of 2018, we have graduated nearly 2,100 students, which averages out to about 52 per year since the year we started. This total is equivalent to about eight G. Ray Bodley High School graduating classes. In 1998, a record 114 of our students graduated in one year. My youngest student who earned a diploma was 16. My oldest student was 73. She didn’t do it for employment or for college admission. She just wanted to achieve this for her own satisfaction. Occasionally, people call and tell us how much they have appreciated our help. They let us know what they are doing with their lives now. And, in recent years, we’ve been getting the children and grandchildren of people I had when I first started.”
Local service organizations sometimes recognize a teacher’s contributions to Fulton’s education system, and in 2011, our city’s Noon Rotary Club awarded Renae with their Pride in Workmanship Award. “The award was quite an honor,” Renae said, “but I do like people to know that this job has been a great fit for me. Because it was only part-time at the beginning when I had small children, it was perfect. It has stayed a great fit because it has always been about helping people achieve their goals. That is certainly the best part of the job.”
Here in Fulton we are fortunate that our residents, young and old, have an opportunity to better themselves, as well as a staff of caring teachers to guide them. Congratulations to Renae Vehrs for her long career of giving to others so they can pursue a better life.