WEST HARTFORD —— Nessa Newman’s seven children are grown. At 57, she is a certified nursing assistant and live-in caretaker in town.

But for decades, Newman dwelled on a missed opportunity. Her parents were farmers in their native Jamaica, and too poor, she said, to pay for her education. Newman never got a high school diploma.

That changed on Wednesday night.

“I had made up my mind that no matter how long it took, or where life takes me, that was one thing I had to do,” Newman said during a town hall ceremony for West Hartford’s 23 adult education graduates.

Only 11 could attend; many had to work. Among those receiving diplomas was 26-year-old Jason Liappes, a roofer who wants to become a personal trainer and called the day “overdue,” and a pregnant Duan Sun, who was a company manager in China before moving here three years ago.

“I didn’t have a diploma in this country and I felt bad about that,” said Sun, 33.

For Newman, who came to the United States around 1990, the desire for a diploma was long “suppressed as life needs took priority — the bills, the kids and you name it,” she told the small crowd.

State law requires towns to offer adult education, and in West Hartford, about $270,000 was budgeted this year for services that include English language learning, U.S. citizenship classes, preparation for the General Educational Development test, and the one-on-one advising that Newman and other graduates received as part of the National External Diploma Program.

The town’s program began in the early 1980s with a few students completing the series of 65 academic tasks, said David Downes, the school system’s director of continuing education. Some students take only several months; others need a year and a half.

The first formal adult graduation was held in 1993. More than 300 town residents have received their diplomas through the program since its inception, Downes said.

Nydia Figueroa, 33, earned hers two years ago and was chosen as a speaker Wednesday to show what could be done in a short time. In April, the mother of two got a job in the school system as a paraprofessional for a 19-year-old blind student.

Figueroa, who grew up in Hartford, said she dropped out of school as a fourth-grader. It haunted her as an adult and she feared what would become of her daughters: “When my kids got older, why should they graduate if I didn’t?”

In 2008, Figueroa left her factory job to return to school. Now she wants to attend college and specialize in special education.

“I have a 14-year-old and 7-year-old. … I would never, ever want my children to go through what I went through,” Figueroa said. “It doesn’t matter what’s your nationality, where you’re from, rich or poor. Education is freedom. That’s what it is.”

Special Education Program

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