WorkKeys® Helps At-Risk High School Students Earn a Diploma and Prepare for a Brighter Future

The Organization:

Aims Community College – Weld/Larimer County High School Diploma Program

The Challenge:

Provide at-risk high school students with an alternative and flexible way to earn a high school diploma by completing a nontraditional curriculum designed to help prepare them for the future

The Solution:

Nine WorkKeys assessments and training

The Results:

  • Initiated in 1998–99, the program has awarded high school diplomas and employability certificates to 2,200 students.
  • Graduation rates have exceeded 80 percent in the ten years since the program was established.
  • Follow-up data shows that 56 percent of the 2,200 graduates pursued additional education at Aims Community College or other schools, 23 percent entered the workforce, and 8 percent entered military service.


The Weld/Larimer County High School Diploma Program is a self-paced, competency-based educational opportunity with an open entry/exit policy and flexible scheduling. This makes it possible for motivated students to earn a diploma by working one-to-one with licensed teachers outside the traditional classroom environment.

Many alternative high school programs exist, offering flexible programs of study and using nontraditional teaching methods. However, virtually all of these programs are based on traditional high school curricula. In contrast, this program relies on a curriculum designed around ACT’s WorkKeys assessments for cognitive skills leading to entry into the workforce, the military, or postsecondary educational opportunities.

Students identified as “at-risk” may be selected to attend one of four program locations across Weld and Larimer counties in north central Colorado. This innovative program is entirely competency-based and permits students the flexibility to come and go as work and home schedules allow. The diploma program requires that each student achieve a minimum score (shown below) on all nine WorkKeys cognitive skills assessments:

Reading for Information5Teamwork4
Applied Mathematics5Business Writing3
Locating Information4Listening3
Applied Technology4Writing3

Marsha Harmon, a training coordinator in Continuing Education at Aims Community College in Greeley, Colorado, has been involved with this program since its inception in 1998. Asked to describe “typical” students enrolling in the program, Harmon says their only commonality is their goal orientation: “They know what they want and how to get it.”

Students in the program often seem frustrated by traditional high school environments and tend to characterize many course requirements as irrelevant, according to Harmon. They also have little patience for the day-to-day “unnecessary drama” demonstrated by many of their high school peers. “They have plenty of drama in their home lives, and they don’t need more of it at school.” She reports that they know they have to work for a living; in fact, more than 90 percent of students hold jobs while they are in the program. They just want to get their diploma and move on—without the distractions often present in a mainstream high school.

Harmon also reports that nearly one-third of the program’s students achieved test results that show them to be gifted/talented, but many are bored and impatient with the pace of education as it commonly occurs in a traditional high school. They want to progress at their own rate, and achieve a diploma as soon as they can.

When the program was first proposed, the concept of basing a high school diploma almost entirely on the nine WorkKeys competencies was met with resistance among educators and administrators. The idea that a high school diploma need not be based on traditional “Carnegie Units,” more commonly known as credit hours, was revolutionary at the time. Harmon and her colleagues fought for the concept. They were convinced that meeting or exceeding minimum scores on WorkKeys assessments measuring real-world workplace skills would prove that students are equipped for their futures, regardless of whether they are bound for the military, higher education, or the workforce.

The program was offered only in Greeley in 1998–1999, its first year of operation. It is now also offered in Fort Lupton, Longmont, and Loveland. Harmon says highly qualified, licensed teachers are available at each location to assist students individually or in small groups. These educators are committed to helping the students achieve their goals and love teaching in this nontraditional environment. According to Harmon, many are retired educators who, like their current students, grew weary of the same aspects of mainstream education.

Diplomas are granted by a regional BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services). The Centennial BOCES is the diploma-granting agency for students enrolled in the Weld County program, and students completing their requirements at the Loveland location receive their diplomas from the BOCES serving Larimer County.

In addition to their diplomas, graduates earn an Employability Certificate based on three WorkKeys assessments: Applied Mathematics, Locating Information, and Reading for Information. The same assessments are the basis for the National Career Readiness Certificate. The Diploma Program’s Employability Certificate requires minimum scores that are higher than those needed to achieve the Silver level on the national credential, which calls for scores of four or higher on all three assessments. The diploma program requires a Level 5 score on Applied Mathematics and Reading for Information, along with a Level 4 on Locating Information. Individuals achieving the Silver level on the National Career Readiness Certificate are considered to be qualified for 65 percent of the occupations analyzed by ACT.

Of the nine assessments, Applied Technology and Teamwork are probably the most difficult for the students, Harmon says, probably due to their lack of work experience. “These students absolutely understand the importance of workplace skills,” she states. “They’ve seen enough to know that you must do the job, or you will lose the job.”


Ten years and 2,200 graduates later, the program has evolved into a widely admired alternative that is gaining acceptance across Colorado and in other states. Aims Community College has recently signed an agreement with Denver Public Schools to launch a new site in Denver beginning in September 2009. Similar programs have been established in Pueblo, Adams, Mesa, and Summit counties in Colorado. An application is currently being prepared by the Archuleta County Education Center in southwest Colorado for a statewide charter initiative utilizing the Weld/Larimer County High School Diploma Program concept. The charter school, Mountain Career Academy, would extend the program to all areas of Colorado in part as a response to recent legislation supporting workforce readiness statewide. Outside the state, a similar program exists in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and one will begin soon in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Harmon has stepped away from the day-to-day operation of the program to assist with the formation of similar programs elsewhere. She is excited to see growing acceptance of nontraditional programs emphasizing workplace skills. “I believe we are serving a segment of our young people in a new and different way,” she said. “These students have a lot to offer and just need an alternative path. Their circumstances may have resulted in their ‘at-risk’ label as a teen, but when these students graduate and can see the possibilities that lie ahead, they know they have accomplished something that will help open doors and create opportunities.”