Pastor earns diploma over 30 years after dropping out

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He was a happily married, father and grandfather with a rewarding career. But, Tracy Hutcheson was not fulfilled. He was missing something – his high school diploma.

“I was supposed to graduate from high school in 1986, but that didn’t happen,” he said.
Hutcheson attended Spring Garden High School but dropped out his senior year when he realized he only had 14.5 credits and needed 21 credits to graduate.

“I knew I wasn’t going to make it, so I just quit,” he said. “It’s not that I couldn’t do the school work. I didn’t really apply myself. I wasn’t willing to devote the time and effort to school.”

People always look for tragic reasons that leads to a person to dropping out of high school, but Hutcheson didn’t have one.

“I grew up in a great family,” he said. “My parents were great providers. I didn’t have any issues at home. There were no drugs or alcohol or abuse. I just simply dropped out of school because I knew I didn’t have the credits to finish.”

After quitting school, Hutcheson had no drive; no direction.

“I wandered for some years,” he said. “It took me a little longer to grow up than it did others.”
In 2008, his life began to change when he landed a job at Summit Hill Foods in Rome, Ga., where he worked his way up to supply chain manager. In 2015, he went into the ministry and currently serves as pastor of Cross Plains Church in Piedmont. Despite those successes, not having his high school diploma was a nagging issue for him.

In 2020, Hutcheson attended the graduation of students from his church. There, he became inspired and decided it was time for him to work towards his high school diploma.

Hutcheson contacted Cherokee County Schools Superintendent Mike Welsh to see if getting his diploma from Spring Garden High School would be a possibility.

“I told him I was willing to do whatever I needed to do,” he said. “I really wanted to do this.”

Welsh told him about the non-traditional High School Diploma Option, also known as HSDO, at Gadsden State Community College. Upon completion of the program, students receive a high school diploma from the last Alabama high school they actually attended.

“He found me a path to get my diploma,” Hutcheson said. “He told me that it wouldn’t be easy, but it would be possible. I was happy that I had options.”

Gadsden State’s Adult Education Services assists individuals who are at least 19 years old with earning the HSDO. There are two HSDO options available. One option is for adults who attended an Alabama high school and earned enough credits to graduate but did not pass the high school graduation exam. The other option is for those like Hutcheson – adults who earned 10 or more credits from an Alabama high school but needs additional credits for high school completion. Now requiring 28 credits to graduate, Hutcheson needed 13.5 credits in academic courses, such as math, reading and language.

Hutcheson knew the odds were against him, but he was ready to try. In January 2021, the Piedmont resident drove to Gadsden twice a week to take classes in preparation for testing for his diploma.

“My instructor, Angela Hood, did not tell me when I first started the program that she wasn’t very optimistic that I would succeed,” he said. “She wasn’t sure it could be done because she had never seen anyone do it before.”

In addition to academic assistance at Gadsden State, he enrolled in training and certification courses offered by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council. The Gadsden State program focuses on the core technical competencies needed by the nation’s frontline production and material handling workers. Hutcheson completed the program in four months and became a certified production technician.

“Once I finished MSSC, I was able to devote all my time to my academic courses,” he said. “I was very determined.”

Hutcheson was driven by a sign in the classroom that read, “If you don’t want to learn, nobody can teach you. If you want to learn, nobody can stop you.” He said he is so appreciative of the support he received in the classroom room from Gadsden State Adult Education employees Elaine Thomas, Chris Hopper, Hollie Patterson and Hood.

“Ms. Hood was my biggest critic, but she was also my biggest fan,” he said. “She helped me and encouraged me so much. She didn’t give me anything. She wanted me to earn my scores and I appreciate that. I wouldn’t be here without her.”

It took Hutcheson a total of 14 months to earn his diploma. In addition, he completed the Alabama Career Essentials program, which focuses on employability skills and is credit towards the HSDO. He also earned a gold badge, the second-highest accomplishment on the ACT WorkKeys Test, which is an assessment of a person’s graphic literacy, applied math and workplace documents.

“I did accomplish a lot,” he said. “It took a lot of time and effort, but it was certainly worth it.”

Last month, he wore his son’s cap and gown to speak at Gadsden State’s Adult Education Services graduation in Oxford. There, he was awarded his high school diploma.

“It’s never too late to go back and make a wrong, right,” he said. “I was able to go back to school after 37 years to correct a mistake I made at 18 years old. I’ve had this weight on my shoulders for 37 years and now that weight has been lifted. I hope my story encourages others to go for their HSDO or GED. I want my story to inspire them to go back to school. If I can do it, it can be done.”

For more information about Adult Education Services at Gadsden State, visit www.gadsdenstate.edu/adulted.

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