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The last thing on Darla Stone’s mind when she quit school at age 16 was how it would affect her future.

Stone, now 24, is taking classes at School District 2’s Adult Education Center to earn her high school equivalency degree. But in her freshman year at Skyview, problems with a teacher prompted her to transfer to Shepherd High.

After a couple of months there, she went to live with an aunt in Oregon and attended an alternative high school for the rest of her freshman year, which she liked.

After about eight months living with her aunt, though, Stone came back to Billings and dropped out of school.

She went to work at a fast-food restaurant and was promoted to assistant manager after several months. She left that job for one at a car-rental agency not quite two years later.

At age 20, she quit her job and got married. Now she is a wife and mother of a son, daughter and a stepson.

When she began to think about going back to work, Stone said, she began to realize how her lack of education would limit her job prospects.

“I realized I couldn’t afford to get a job and pay for day care without a diploma or a college degree,” she said. “Almost everybody asks if you have a degree or a diploma, and, if you don’t, it seems like you’re put behind everybody who does.”

So Stone enrolled at the Adult Education Center in the spring and began classes this summer. She said she found going back into the classroom wasn’t so bad.

“I was nervous,” Stone said. “I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult than it is. I had a lot of problems in high school, and now I come here and it seems easy.”

Stone said she likes the relaxed atmosphere at the center.

“You’re kind of your own teacher,” she said. “They’re here for help if you need it.”

Stone said teachers hand out both curriculum packets and computer work.

“You can do it all here or take it home if you like,” Stone said. “The computer gives you a break from sitting at a desk and reading and writing.”

She hopes to complete her GED tests by this fall and plans to go on to college.

Not everybody who comes to the center completes the testing as quickly as Stone hopes to in the go-at-your-own-pace type of program. And not everybody who comes to the center is after a high school equivalency diploma.

Take James Howard, for instance. Howard, 46, graduated from a high school in Washington. In his early adult life, he was a logger in Washington and worked on an off-shore drilling rig in Louisiana. In 1980, he drove from the West Coast to the Eastern seaboard and back as a long-haul trucker.

Howard got married in 1990, and the couple moved to Montana in 1994. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, and underwent the first of several surgeries.

The initial surgery required surgeons to remove part of the base of his tongue, part of his jawbone and some of the muscles in his neck, chest and shoulder. That was followed by radiation therapy and, later, more surgery.

Howard knew he couldn’t go back to trucking, but he wasn’t sure what to do.

“I had a choice to sit around and feel sorry for myself or figure out what I could do,” he said.

He decided to sit down with a counselor at the state Vocational Rehabilitation office in Billings to explore his options. He discovered the state office would cover the costs of his college tuition, but he wasn’t quite ready.

Instead, he was referred to the Adult Education Center to brush up on his academic skills. Like Stone, Howard was scared at the prospect of going back into a classroom.

“I had knots in my stomach even worse than driving truck through the middle of New York City,” Howard said. “It really scared me – and I still am.”

But, Howard said, it’s getting easier, and he appreciates the approach the center takes.

“There’s no pressure here,” he said. “I have the option of going to college in the fall or I can wait until the spring. I don’t want to set myself up to fail. It’s been 30 years since I’ve been in school.”

Both Howard and Stone say they also appreciate the support of their teachers and the flexible schedules offered at the center. Both will complete the one-month summer session in early August and then begin the fall session on Aug. 29.

Woody Jensen, director of adult education for School District 2, said the services of the Adult Education Center go beyond helping students secure their high school equivalency degrees and tune up for college.

The center works helps some high-school dropouts who qualify earn their high-school diplomas. Staff members work with employees referred to the center by their employers to increase specific job skills, ranging from how to use a computer to how to improve their language skills to write better e-mail.

The center also provides citizenship training and classes in English as a Second Language. The Nite Owls Program also is offered through the auspices of the center.

The variety of services is matched by the mixture of people who take advantage of the services, Jensen said.

“One thing that makes us successful is we have a smorgasbord of people here,” he said. “It’s fun to see the older students relate to the younger ones and the younger relate to the older. The older students give the younger ones guidance, and the younger students introduce the older ones to changes in technology.”

Jensen said the center typically serves 950 to 1,000 students a year. Of that number, about 150 are youths 16 to 18, and the rest are adults.

All of the teachers at the center are certified and hold secondary endorsements, Jensen said. All of the services are provided free by the school district, but, Jensen said, watching success happen all around him is priceless.

“It is an exciting place to watch learning happen,” he said. “Some people never had success in education until they came here.”

Susan Olp can be reached at 657-1281 or at