Helping students excel: Goodwill eyes city for program targeting dropouts

The Excel Center is not your traditional high school.

Ages for students at the state-funded charter school range from 20 to 60. In a year’s time, a student can earn every credit required to receive a high school diploma.

The tuition-free public school, which has 12 locations across Indiana, is operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, Inc., an organization formed by Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana. Its funding comes from the Indiana state legislature.

The Excel Center’s mission is to give Indiana high school dropouts a second chance at earning a high school diploma.

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It has five locations in Indianapolis plus seven in central and southern Indiana cities of Anderson, Clarksville, Kokomo, Lafayette, Noblesville, Richmond and Shelbyville.

Goodwill Education Initiatives is looking to expand into four additional Indiana communities, including Columbus, and received permission to do that June 7 from the Indiana Charter School Board.

“Our effort is to take folks between the ages of 18 and whatever and help them really get on that path to economic self-sufficiency through education and work beyond our doors,” said Betsy Delgado, Goodwill’s vice president of mission and education initiatives.

Through the Excel Center, which is expected to serve 3,600 adults across its 12 locations this year, 97 percent of all of its students graduate with both a Core 40 high school diploma and an industry-recognized certification or dual college credits from Ivy Tech Community College.

The first new location will open in Muncie for the 2018-2019 school year. The other three are projected to open by 2021 in Columbus, Bloomington and Marion.

Delgado said Goodwill looks at a 30 mile-radius around a city and measures the number of dropouts using census data, typically searching for an area with around 10,000 dropouts. Columbus alone has 2,998 adults without at least a high school diploma, according to Goodwill Education Initiative’s application filed with the state.

Goodwill Education Initiatives must present an activation request prior to opening an Excel Center in Columbus for the 2020-21 school year. That step is not expected to occur for the proposed Columbus site until 2019 or 2020, Excel officials said.

More than a high school

Aimed at providing a pathway for adults to receive their high school diploma — not just a high school equivalency diploma — the Excel Center follows a model that not only strengthens a student’s academic success, but also observes the student as a human being, Delgado said.

“Within the model is a lot of support for our individuals and our families,” Delgado said. “Anything that might impede your ability to be successful in your education, we want to eliminate that barrier.”

For example, all centers offer free childcare and free transportation to and from the center location. Each student is also paired with a life coach who works with the student in identifying individual assets.

Delgado said this model aligns with the center’s mission to provide multiple opportunities to all enrolled students.

“We have about 20,000 folks in the state of Indiana dropping out every year,” Delgado said. “This is an important options for folks who want to advance in their lives.”

Multiple studies were performed in each of the four proposed locations that evaluated demographics such as the number of high school dropouts residing in the area, the availability of workforce opportunities and income data, she said.

The Excel Center, which serves anyone with an Indiana address, expects to reduce dropout rates in the communities it enters.

When students arrive at the Excel Center, staff members look at their high school transcripts to determine how many credits they completed. From there, they determine which credits the student needs in order to graduate. Delgado said many students enter the program needing only a few credits to earn their diploma, while others arrive with no credits at all.

Within five eight-week terms, the center offers a variety of classes lasting 90 minutes to three hours. Several are commonly referred to as blended classes, combining an English credit with a fine arts credit or a U.S. history credit, all in one course.

“That’s the way we help students move along a little more quickly and have high credit attainment,” Delgado said. “Adults come to us saying, ‘I really want to get into college,’ or ‘I really want to get a job.’ There’s a sense of urgency, so that’s how we honor that — by maintaining the rigor through time and a high level curriculum and giving an opportunity to earn more credits through one class.”

From the eyes of a director

Since the Excel Center’s initial opening in Indianapolis in 2010, Khalilah Palmer has watched hundreds of students enter the doors of the center and exit with a high school diploma.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Palmer, director of the Shelbyville Excel Center. “No matter what the mistakes might have been, giving people a second chance is very important — a chance to redo and get it right, make a difference in their lives without having to live their mistakes forever.”

Palmer wears multiple hats at the state’s smallest Excel Center, 30 miles northeast of Columbus at 117 N. Harrison St. The center employs nine certified staff members. The center director also serves as life coach, teacher and college-and-career pathways specialist.

Shelby County is home to around 5,000 high school dropouts, Palmer said, making it a necessary location.

With six classroom spaces, the Shelbyville Excel Center serves 100 students from across the state.

“The county has a booming economy and they are in need of people that have quality education and are ready to join the workforce in manufacturing and logistics or healthcare,” Palmer said. “As part of the Shelbyville mayor’s efforts to meet the workforce needs, the Excel Center was brought to Shelby County.”

Reaching higher

For 30-year-old Gloria Turner, the Excel Center turned her life around.

Turned dropped out of school at age 15. With a job, a new car and being in a relationship, at the time Turner said she saw no need for education. But after the relationship ended and she lost her job, the 22-year-old single mother from Franklin had no backup plan.

But Turner discovered the Meadows Excel Center in Indianapolis in June 2013, an important part of her search for an improved life.

“At the orientation, I was apprehensive,” Turner said. “I thought, ‘There’s no way this can be free.’ There were about 100 people at the orientation in a very cramped room. When we went on break, I was going to walk out with the hope that no one saw me.”

But the director spotted Turner and talked to her about joining the program, and Turner said the rest is history.

Turner entered the Excel Center with five high school credits and a 10th grade aptitude, leaving her with an estimated two years to earn her degree.

To accelerate the process, Turner took online classes through the Excel Center, along with part-time courses, and graduated in 7 1/2 months with a 4.06 GPA.

“I ended a three-generation cycle of dropouts when I graduated,” Turner said. “It was a very emotional time for me and my family when that day came.”

Since graduating from Ivy Tech Community College with an associate’s degree in December, Turner has served as a life coach for students at the Meadows Excel Center.

“It’s had a monumental impact, not just on me, but has the potential to have a generational impact on my family,” Turner said. “Now that my son sees me excel in school, it excites him. And without a doubt, if I had not come here, I would not be a college graduate today.”

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The Excel Center gives adults the opportunity to earn their high school diploma. Tuition is free at the Excel Center, operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, Inc. The center also offers free childcare and transportation.

Through five eight-week terms, students can earn all the credits needed to earn an Indiana Core 40 high school diploma. They can also attempt to earn an industry-recognized certification or dual college credits from Ivy Tech through additional electives. Each student is paired with a life coach to help mentor them through the process of earning an education and maintaining a balanced scheduled.

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To enroll at one of the Excel Center’s 12 sites, visit

After filing your application, a staff member will call you. To ease the process, contact your high school to obtain a copy of your transcript.