Goodwill tries tailoring education to meet needs of adult dropout students

Goodwill is known for its charitable resale stores, but Goodwill of Central Indiana has expanded their mission to help give high school dropouts a second chance at graduation. The NewsHour's April Brown reports on the program's approach to education.

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GWEN IFILL: Now the importance of improving access to college for lower-income students.

That was the subject of a White House summit today that attracted more than 100 colleges and universities. Research has shown high-achieving students from poorer families graduate from college at roughly the same levels as lower-achieving kids in that same economic bracket.

Today, the first lady said she understood from personal experience that too many students might not reach for top colleges.

FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: The truth is that if Princeton hadn't found my brother as a basketball recruit, and if I hadn't seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, it never would have occurred to me to apply to that school, never.

And I know that there are so many kids out there just like me, kids who have a world of potential, but maybe their parents never went to college, or maybe they have never been encouraged to believe they could succeed there. And so that means it's our job to find those kids.

GWEN IFILL: But some of those young people who never got their high school diplomas are now facing a difficult job market.

Tonight, we look at a program in Indiana that's trying to help some get the diploma they missed out on years ago.

The NewsHour's April Brown reports for our American Graduate project.

APRIL BROWN: Goodwill, it's a name that bargain hunters across the country know well. The charity sells donated clothes and used goods at its retail stores to fund career training and social programs for everyone from the disabled to ex-convicts.

But for some Indianapolis residents like Nichole Thomas, Goodwill has come to represent something else, a chance to confront a lingering regret.

NICHOLE THOMAS, student: I think the biggest thing to overcome is just swallowing your pride.

APRIL BROWN: Since 2010, Goodwill of Central Indiana has offered Thomas and other dropouts the opportunity to earn a high school diploma at its network of charter schools known as The Excel Center.

In 1995, Thomas became pregnant with her daughter Ashley (ph). She was just 15 and dropped out of high school before earning a single credit. But despite her lack of education, the young mother was able to find work for nearly 20 years.

NICHOLE THOMAS: I will admit that there's plenty of times I lied on applications and said I had my high school diploma and even some college education, and it was never even looked into. So I was able to get some really good jobs and get in and stay there without that education.

APRIL BROWN: But, a few years ago, as the recession tightened its grip on cities like Indianapolis, she was laid off. Without a diploma, she found it hard to even get an interview, where she could sell herself to future employers, and finally realized that she needed to go back to school.

NICHOLE THOMAS: You know, I wanted to do it right, and I wanted to further my education beyond that, and I felt I would have an easier time getting into colleges with a high school diploma.

APRIL BROWN: Today, Thomas is among more than 3,000 adults enrolled at the Excel Center's nine sites. The move into education marked an evolution for a nonprofit known for reselling donations.

James McClelland, CEO and president of Goodwill of Central Indiana, says his organization thought carefully before deciding to offer them a diploma over a GED.

JIM MCCLELLAND, Goodwill of Central Indiana: Some of the data that we saw as we started looking into this showed that if GED is the highest level of education that you attain, you don't make any more money than a high school dropout, and your rate of unemployment is no greater than that of a high school dropout.

APRIL BROWN: Goodwill didn't decide to branch out from retail to education all on its own. The city of Indianapolis actually approached the organization about doing it.

The Indianapolis mayor's office has the unusual ability to sponsor charter schools in the state. Jason Kloth, the deputy mayor of education for Indianapolis says there are about 150,000 dropouts in the city's metro area, and that offering them educational opportunities is an economic imperative.

JASON KLOTH, Deputy Mayor of Education - Indianapolis: There is a clear need with existing high school dropouts, people who may have made a mistake at one point or another in their life. And this is an opportunity for them to reenter, earn their high school diploma, and then go on to enter employment.

APRIL BROWN: McClelland says Goodwill has been working with and employing dropouts for decades. So the organization tailored a school that met their needs.

Free child care is provided, and weekend and night classes are offered year-round. Like any other public high school, the students' education is paid for by the state. But at The Excel Center, students also have the chance to earn college credits and move toward technical certifications, steps that could improve their chances of finding employment in Indianapolis' new economy, says Jason Kloth.

JASON KLOTH: Today, as our economy has shifted from an industrial economy to an information economy, having a high school diploma is the bare minimum that's going to be required to enter into that middle-class lifestyle that we aspire to here in our country.

APRIL BROWN: Because it's a relatively new and untraditional model, both Goodwill and the mayor's office are studying The Excel Center's success, which will determine future state funding. The school's students are judged by the same standards as all other high schoolers in Indiana, which is a good thing, according to algebra teacher Kandas Boozer.

She says it forces teachers to have high expectations for students in spite of difficult circumstances.

KANDAS BOOZER, The Excel Center: I expect them to always give 100 percent no matter what that looks like. Everybody is at a different level, so I just want to make sure they give me everything they have.

APRIL BROWN: Montaque Quentrel Koonce is one recent graduate who had his fair share of challenges. A former dropout, Koonce came to The Excel Center after being laid off from his job on a assembly line and struggling to find a place to live.

MONTAQUE QUENTREL KOONCE, student: There was two things I'm terrified of, you know, homeless -- I have never been homeless in my life -- or having to do math.


MONTAQUE QUENTREL KOONCE: So I had to confront both of those fears at the same time

APRIL BROWN: Koonce studied hard, graduated with a 3.2 GPA and later found a job at a packaging warehouse for Amazon. For a man who hadn't been in a classroom in more than 30 years, he found the teachers to be patient and encouraging, and felt he succeeded, in part, because he could pick up where he left off when he dropped out of high school at 16.

MONTAQUE QUENTREL KOONCE: I didn't have to go through high school from the beginning to end. It's just from exactly from when I walked out the door as to where I walked back in. And they test you, they figure out where you are at, and tell you what you need, and they help you get there.

APRIL BROWN: President and CEO Jim McClelland says his organization's educational effort is not only helping people like Koonce today.

JIM MCCLELLAND: We have a lot of students who tell us that they are doing this for their kids or so their kids won't have any excuse not to. That's pretty neat.

And while we know that by earning that diploma, it's going to have a positive impact on the mom or the dad, we think the greater impact is going to be with their children.

APRIL BROWN: As for Nichole Thomas, she will graduate from The Excel Center in May and has already begun earning college credit. She says she is anxious to rejoin the work force, but has only one job in mind.

NICHOLE THOMAS: The only job prospect that I'm interested in is coming back to one of The Excel Centers, so I want to come back as an instructor.

APRIL BROWN: Teachers will likely be in high demand for Goodwill of Central Indiana going forward. More than 2,900 students are on a waiting list to enroll.

GWEN IFILL: You can find more online about Goodwill's push into education as they move to duplicate the model around the country.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.