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A Second Chance: Center offers free classes to earn high school diploma in tight job market

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A new program is offering a second chance to local high school dropouts.

The Excel Center, operated by MERS Goodwill at 1514 S. Glenstone Ave., is scheduled to open its doors to students Oct. 22.

The “high school” will provide accelerated courses to adults 21 and older free of charge, said Director Joe Cole.

“Our whole mission is ultimately to remove barriers for our students, who basically came across a barrier at some point in time at a traditional high school setting,” he said. “We’ve had over 130 people in the Springfield area register online to show interest in the program.”

More than 500,000 adults in the state don’t have their high school diploma, according to Census data.

Those who haven’t earned a high school diploma see it reflected in their paychecks.

On average, full-time workers age 25 and older without a high school diploma earn 37 percent less than those who earned a diploma, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Our main goal is to get students out in the workforce and be able to earn a more comfortable or livable wage,” Cole said. “They would definitely be able to do that with a high school diploma.”

Problem solving
In June 2017, the state legislature approved House Bill 93 to help increase Missouri’s high school graduation rate by establishing four adult high schools across the state.

MERS Goodwill was awarded $3 million from the legislature to establish the schools, Goodwill officials said, in addition to $10 million of its own funding.

Along with the launch of the Springfield center next month, centers will open in St. Louis and Poplar Bluff. Cole said a center in Columbia is next.

Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa, a supporter of the bill, has said high school diplomas are a huge factor when employers consider job applicants.

“From the employers I’ve talked to, I think there is a stigma if you don’t have a regular high school diploma. A GED is OK, but I think they feel there is something missing there – a gap,” Wasson told the Missouri Press Association last year as HB 680, a previous version of the bill, was moving through the House.

Before the bill was signed into law, anyone older than 21 wanting to go back to school only could participate in a GED or high school equivalency test program.

Supporters also say education rates affect the state’s economy too.

Mary Ann Rojas, director of the city of Springfield’s Department of Workforce Development, said employers are scrutinizing the available workforce when making hiring decisions. Springfield’s unemployment rate is 3.1 percent, according to the latest data from the BLS.

“Especially now, we’ve seen more job growth, we’ve seen a lot more stability in our economy and companies are making more capital investments,” she said. “The state of the workforce is a huge determining factor as to whether employers are choosing to expand and invest. Currently, we’re seeing some major challenges with a skills gap.”

Different model
Cole said the courses at the Excel Center are not test based – like the GED and HiSET programs – but they are skills based.

“Our staff has been basically rewriting and reworking the Missouri curriculum,” he said. “Our courses are designed to have more meaning to them, so the knowledge can be used in an everyday workplace.”

Cole said the center also would work with students to achieve certificates for particular skills to help set them up for a job, once they earn a diploma.

Not only are the courses free – but also the child care when a student is taking classes. And there’s no homework.

Cole said these changes are intentional. He said the center feels different than a high school, and that helps remove barriers.

“We won’t have the rows of desks and that uncomfortable feeling,” he said. “Even my title as director – I like to shy away from being called principal because that would instantly have a negative connotation in some people’s minds.”

The accelerated classes are held over five weeks – offered on weekdays 9 a.m.-9 p.m. to accommodate various schedules. Cole said students would be able to earn their high school diploma within 12-18 months.

Most of the students interested in the program are in their 30s and 40s, he said, but prospective students in Springfield range from 21 to 70 years old. Currently, 49 students are enrolled for classes starting next month, Cole said.

The Excel Center is housed in a 35,000-square-foot building with nine classrooms, a science lab, a computer lab and a day care facility.

Cole said the center currently has six teachers on board and can handle up to 300 students.

In addition to coursework, each student will work with a life coach and receive an individualized education plan.

The centers are modeled after a similar Goodwill program in Indianapolis, Cole said.

According to the Indianapolis Excel Center’s website, since 2010 the program has graduated over 3,000 students and awarded over 4,000 industry-recognized certifications. Before enrolling at the center, 64 percent of the students were unemployed. After graduating, 80 percent found jobs or went to college.

Rojas said the center is needed in Springfield, and she’s optimistic about the potential outcomes. Between June 1 and Sept. 1, 5,000 people without a high school diploma registered for assistance in their job searches through the Missouri Career Center’s site. Rojas points out those are just individuals from the seven counties surrounding Springfield.

She said the Career Center “tends to be a central point of contact” as it works with myriad partners in the community to advance workforce development. She said her staff plans to refer its clients to the Excel Center when appropriate.

“I think it’s definitely an asset for this region and our community,” she said. “Education is and always will be that thing that gets you beyond and gets you in a position to excel and do better.”

Cole said he’s ready to get started with the program. He has worked in education for eight years, teaching high school in Stone County for the last three years. He applied for the position with the Excel Center in April. The full staff was on board by July and has since been busy writing curriculum and visiting other adult high school models for inspiration.

“I really believe in the program,” he said. “I think this will be a great opportunity for adults.”

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