For 20 years, a high school education was George Herbert Dunston's elusive goal.
Over those years, he began high school equivalency classes five times, but something always interfered: his family, long hours at his job, responsibilities at his church -- where he is a deacon.
Now, finally, Mr. Dunston is pursuing the education he has desired for so long. For the past two years he has been attending classes offered by the AFL-CIO Community Services' Project LEAP, which is partially funded by the United Way.
"It's always something that I've wanted to do, and something I've attempted to do for 20 years," Mr. Dunston said. "I'll just be one happy man if I can just get that GED [general equivalency diploma]." He thinks that he will be ready to take the test after this semester.
The 48-year-old native of Louisburg, N.C., attended school through the eighth grade but then obtained a job as a packer in a tobacco house to support his mother and himself.
Years later, he moved to Baltimore, married his wife, Harriet, and they began rearing their two children. The idea of going back to school appealed to him, but Mr. Dunston said he kept thinking, "Naw, I'll go next year."
"I guess I got cold feet. . . . I just kept putting it off to next year. And before I knew it, 20 years had passed."
Mr. Dunston attends two-hour classes two nights a week after work as a maintenance mechanic with the city Housing Authority. Under a mandate by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, all city employees receive an hour of time off from work for each hour they spend in class.
The motivation exhibited by Mr. Dunston is typical of Project LEAP students, said program director Debra Brown Felser. "They work all day and then they come to class at night. And they're just gung-ho," she said.
The Labor Education and Achievement Program offers classes at four sites in the city and at various locations in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford and Frederick counties. Classes are also given on some work sites. AFL-CIO Community Services contracts either with the local school district or community college for instructors.
The program has served 1,279 people since it started three years ago, and 450 of them are still attending classes, said Jean Wardenfelt, a peer counselor with the program.
After Mr. Dunston's first semester, his superiors said that they noticed a marked improvement in his writing skills on the work orders he submitted. He also seemed more confident and self-assured.
So without his even applying for it, Mr. Dunston was promoted to the position of chief mechanic. He served as the acting maintenance supervisor for a brief time earlier this year. His boss said a permanent supervisory position could be in his future.
"The program has given him the confidence that he really needs to do well," said Gloria Burton, housing manager for Gilmor Homes, where Mr. Dunston works. "A lot of people have supervisory skills, but writing skills are something that they lack.
"He has the capabilities to do that now. So he has really potential for career growth now. . . . I would like to see him as a maintenance supervisor."
Mr. Dunston said that before he went back to school, he never would have thought about applying for a promotion because of his lack of writing skills.
"I never would apply without an education because I knew filling out the work orders would be a problem," he said. "I knew the job. I knew I could perform as far as maintenance. All I needed was an education to be promoted."
Since beginning to study again, Mr. Dunston said, he seems to think more clearly, and it has been easier for him to make decisions. As a chief mechanic, he gives instructions to his work crews and decides on the priority of work requests from about 800 tenants.
"When you've got 800 people calling you, you have to make a decision: which one you're going to get to first," he said. "After I went to school a while, I knew the things that had to be done."
And he said his new confidence has not just helped him on the job. "We're getting the bathroom and kitchen remodeled, and we've got these fast-talking salesmen coming in here," Mr. Dunston recounted."And I know I can ask all these questions . . . before I sign the contract . . . If you don't ask the questions, they're not going to tell you, if they can get away with it."
Going to school after a day of hard work has not been easy. Over the past two years, the thought of dropping out has crossed his mind.
"I've been tempted," he said. "What makes it hard is having commitments. I might come home and the sink might be stopped up, the vacuum might be broken. And that's the hardest part, when you're committed to other activities. When you're a family man, you can't let the sink stay stopped up."
But his studies have been worth the sacrifice, he said. "I had a feeling that I was incapable of doing a lot of things before. Now I feel much more confident in myself in whatever I'm doing."