Gary Moore has made a lot of dough on his long journey toward a high school diploma. Mostly the kind you eat – as a baker and trainer for Panera Bread – but a decent amount of the dollar kind, too. He’s helped support his parents and siblings over the years, and owns a house and a car.
“That Camaro’s pretty comfy,” he says, making the best of a schedule that has him sleeping just a few hours – in his car – between work and school.
Mr. Moore was 11 when he quit school to take care of two baby sisters. His mom was ill and his dad worked multiple jobs. They lived in a log cabin in a nearby rural county.
“Nobody checked up on anything,” he says of dropping out after fifth grade. “It was just like, poof.”
Now 27, Moore enrolled in April at The Excel Center – a charter high school for adults. If he keeps up his accelerated pace, he’ll finish by February.
“When you’re denied something, you want it even that much more,” Moore says.
His fellow students in this repurposed wing of a church building on W. 34th Street are retail workers and refugees. They are grandmothers and grandsons, single parents and parenting teens.
Here in the heartland, they represent the roughly 30 million adults in the United States who often find themselves shut out of an unforgiving economy – or unable to advance – because they lack that all-important passport: a high school diploma.
“This is a very marginalized group, and we’re giving them an opportunity to get a new lease on their career,” says Katie Morgan, director of this branch of The Excel Center, started by Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana in 2010. “We’re offering a second chance…. Sometimes it’s a first chance.”
In Indianapolis, about 100,000 people over 18 haven’t finished high school, and they earn an average of $8,000 less per year than those who have. More than one-third have experienced long-term unemployment. Beyond the personal cost, some estimates of the national economic and social burden reach $1 million over the course of each person’s lifetime.
“The overall need is huge…. Employees need much higher literacy and numeracy skills,” says Terry Salinger, a literacy expert and fellow at the American Institutes for Research. “The national availability of appropriate adult education programs is really not up to meeting the potential demand.… It’s especially severe in rural areas.”
Traditionally, the GED or other equivalency exams have been a popular option, but recent changes to the GED have resulted in lower pass rates, and state and federal funding for adult education has been stretched thin.
The Excel Center is free to students and is tailored to adults: It offers free drop-in child care, life coaches, workforce-certification courses, and a chance to start earning college credit.
It’s being watched as a potential model for addressing the challenges adult learners face. However, not many states allow high schools serving students with no upper age limit to receive full per-pupil funding the way Indiana does.
The Excel Center has grown from one campus in 2010 to 11 now in central Indiana, serving 3,500 students (the legislature has agreed to fund up to 5,005 such students).
Other Goodwills have started similar schools in South Bend, Ind., Austin, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and Washington (which has an array of charter schools serving adults). Another 20 locations are seriously considering it.
'It's going to mean everything'
Moore struggled with dyslexia, and most teachers “thought that I would never end up anywhere,” he says. Asked to imagine the day he graduates, he almost holds his breath: “I don’t want to cry, but it’s certainly going to mean everything.”
Staying motivated and navigating school, work, and family can be overwhelming at times, and that’s where life coaches come into play.
Students have shown up to class after getting evicted, and coaches have taken them to a shelter and helped figure out their next steps. Others may need a pep talk or counseling about applying for jobs.
“You got some that start out very motivated, and … in November, everybody gets to calling in: ‘Oh, I gotta work overtime. Oh, the weather,’ ” says coach Kortez Montgomery. Coaches can offer a wide range of support, but ultimately, “You gotta be at a place in your life where you can do school,” he says.
Teachers know many of their students have had bad experiences with school, so at the start of each term, it’s about “convincing the students they can do it,” says Doug Holder, a math teacher at Excel’s campus in suburban Noblesville.
One 18-year-old at first “had no idea she could do anything, especially in math – that dirty, four-letter word,” he jokes. Now she’s taking Algebra II and scoring in the 90s.
Math classes are three hours long, including time to practice what’s just been covered, so the teacher is on hand to help. Despite the support, a substantial number of students struggle to come to class consistently enough to pass.
Out of 22 Algebra II students who started Mr. Holder’s class last term, 13 completed the course and 11 were advanced enough to earn dual credit with Ivy Tech Community College, which is housed in the same building.
In 2015-16, 688 students graduated from the 11 campuses in central Indiana.
Heather Simmons was an honor roll student when her education was derailed by health problems. She missed a month of classes at 15, and says she faced detentions for further absences, despite her need for surgery. “So I ended up quitting school,” she says with tears welling up.
Nearly two decades later, she was struggling to raise three sons on wages from Long John Silver’s. She looked into the GED but says she couldn’t afford the test, which cost more than $100.
At a school fair for her boys, the first table she saw was the Excel Center’s. “I’m like, there’s no way this is absolutely free… I want to sign up for it right now.’ ”
Her oldest son, then 14, watched his brothers, 5 and 6, after school so his mom could juggle classes and work.
The Excel Center holds classes four days a week, leaving Fridays for teachers to plan or give students extra help. Students can start at the beginning of any eight-week term.
After eight months, Ms. Simmons graduated in June as the valedictorian of the Noblesville campus. She stops in the hall to give a hug to a former classmate and to point out a picture of herself wearing her dark green cap and gown.
“Everybody thinks it’s just a diploma, but it makes a huge change in your life, huge – the self-confidence and esteem you get from it,” Simmons says. She now works for one of the local Goodwill stores and tutors Excel students. She received a $2,400 scholarship from Ivy Tech, and will start taking classes in January.
All of her kids now talk about college. “My 6-year-old says he’s going to go to college and be a pizza maker,” she says.
That “two-gen impact” is what’s most heartening to Betsy Delgado, vice president of mission and education initiatives for Goodwill in central Indiana. “If they’ve graduated, they now are a parent of a child that is more likely to graduate…. They are instilling that educational confidence in their child.”
About 80 percent of Excel students receive some form of public assistance, and 45 percent of them have children under 18. The vast majority report that their children have improved in school.
Ms. Delgado offers an example from a high school for traditional-age students, also started by Goodwill. Often, parents don’t show up to a disciplinary hearing for a child, or they show up very angry with the situation. Those hearings usually end in expulsions, Delgado says. Recently, a mother who was an Excel graduate came in, and it was a very different conversation. “She was proud of graduating, she was so encouraging of her child…. We were able to put [that student] on a graduation plan,” Delgado says.
For some families, there’s a three- or four-generation impact. Gladys Briars and her grandson Ocean Farley sit side by side working on math problems at the W. 34th street campus. She’s 77, he’s 21, and he’s got a baby boy on the way.
Babies often make an appearance here, tucked under desks while they nap, or dropped off downstairs in the bright and cozy child-care room.
“The model is so loving,” says Marquisha Bridgeman, who was a spokeswoman for The Excel Center until recently. “If they stop coming they get phone calls every day, and if they don’t answer we show up at the house.”
More demanding job requirements
In small communities like Richmond, near the Ohio border, previous generations could get by on manufacturing jobs without a high school diploma. The presence of an Excel Center can be felt quickly in such places, Delgado says.
A hospital system in Richmond had 120 openings for clinical medical assistants. Excel was able to train some of its students for that certification.
In addition to regular requirements for a diploma, all Excel students have to earn a workforce certification or some college credit before they graduate.
The Excel Center may be ahead of the curve in a national push to better integrate workforce preparation and adult education, and to increase supports for adults with more significant barriers to employment, says Larry Condelli, managing director of the Workforce and Lifelong Learning Program at the American Institutes for Research.
At nine campuses tracked through 2014-15, 80 percent of Excel Center graduates were employed or in college after graduation. When they first enrolled, 64 percent of the students had been unemployed.
'What can we do to help you not fail?'
A number of older teens have found the model a better fit as well. Some are surprised to discover they won’t get in trouble for wearing a hat or stepping into the hall to take an important call.
A student Ms. Morgan taught in 7th grade recently enrolled at the campus she directs. He told her he spiraled down when his parents split up. At the end of his senior year he realized he wouldn’t be able to graduate, so he looked for a setting for adults where he could finish.
In larger high schools, “sometimes there’s not somebody constantly saying, ‘What can we do to help you not fail?’ Here, our coaches play that role,” Morgan says.
When Carrington Hopkins, now 18, decided to try online courses and leave high school midway through, no one advised her. Two years later, she discovered her courses wouldn’t count toward a standard diploma and could threaten her eligibility for a college scholarship.
“That’s when I was like, all right, I gotta fix this before it’s too late,” Ms. Hopkins says. She started at Excel’s W. 34th Street campus over the summer and expects to finish in the spring. Her goal is to attend Indiana University and become a neonatal nurse.
“The focus is way better,” she says, compared to the distractions of teen socializing at her old school. “The teachers are more hands on…. You are able to come in and get help if you need it.”
She’s also learning from classmates’ diverse life experiences. A Syrian refugee – a dad in his 30s – told her he feels safer in Indianapolis (even though locals consider his neighborhood somewhat dangerous) because he’s not being targeted.
In class, she says, “we were talking about the American dream … and a lot of people in America want money, fame, or family. But for him it was safety.”