The Excel Center: A new model for adult education
About 1.2 million American students drop out of high school each year, at great cost — high school graduates earn ten times more wealth over their careers than dropouts. If the students who dropped out of the class of 2007 had graduated, the nation’s economy would have benefited from an additional $329 billion in income over their lifetimes. While many programs work on drop out prevention, few have focused on repairing the problem that already exists by getting dropouts back into school. Founders of the Excel Center, a recently-opened program in Indianapolis offering a high school education to adults, have found both demand and enthusiasm for their adult education program — over 300 students are enrolled and there is a waiting list of 1,200. Below, Dowser talks with Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill Education Initiatives, which operates the Excel Center, and the Center’s director, Robert Moses on the need for a high school for older adults.
Dowser: What is the founding story of the Excel Center? How did this idea emerge and how has it evolved?
Bess: In Indianapolis schools the graduation rate for the last eight to ten years has been under ten percent — there were 7,000-8,000 dropouts in 2008 alone. There are enormous economic concerns that fall out from that onto a community. That need was really the genesis of the idea.
Moses: I’ve been in education nearly 24 years. I started out as a teacher and directed and coordinated programs for agriculture and athletics. I came here to Indianapolis, where I’ve been working at the Indianapolis Metropolitan (MET) charter high school. About three years ago, Scott came to me with some ideas about how to bring adult parents of our MET students back to school. In November of 2009 we put together a group to actually look at what a school for adults could look like. The school’s charter was approved in May 2010, so things happened very quickly, and we opened here in the Indianapolis MET building with the help of Goodwill Education Initiatives.
Did you have models for a high school for older adults?
Moses: We took models from adult education programs and programs that do online work with their students, and started to build those into existing ideas we have at the Indianapolis MET. We operate on a ‘high touch, high tech’ concept in which students can leave campus and go to our online learning system to do much of their work. We looked pretty hard across the country for something that was exactly what we wanted to do but found only bits and pieces. We’ve unashamedly borrowed heavily, and it is really about putting pieces together.
What is most innovative about the Excel Center? What distinguishes it from other schools that work with older youth?
Bess: We based this thing on three pillars: First, high school instruction, with a mix of online and face-to-face. Second, a resource center with expert support and life coaching. People who drop out of high school don’t usually drop out because they’re not smart – they drop out because something happened that was a barrier. Our life coaches work with them on overcoming those barriers, navigating them and overcoming them in the future. Third, we work toward a high school diploma that is forward-looking. We help students get traction for what comes next.
Why do you think (personally, and as an institution) that it is a useful strategy to focus exclusively on a population of older youth?
Moses: Everything in our school is built around the needs of older students – they can come in at different times, we are open from 8:30 am to 9:30 pm, we have a drop-in day care center. We have students with children, students who are a sole breadwinner, who are unemployed, who have criminal pasts. We cater to these needs, so they don’t have to choose between feeding their family and going to school. We can help a student feed their family to keep them here. We help them to set their own goals, and we only hold them accountable for what they said they would do.
Bess: Over our years in the MET we’ve had a significant number of older students who want to enroll but regular high school schedule doesn’t work generally for them and they don’t want to be a part of the drama of high school social life. Here the structure is built for their needs. We target students aged 18-22. The reality is that 2/3 of our student body is 18-24 and the rest go up to age 56. Many of our students have really been eviscerated by the economic crisis, and here they are focused and engaged because they know what life is like on the outside without school.
What do you see as the relationship between drop out prevention and reintegration? Do these strategies work together?
Moses: In essence we’re turning into the safety net in a community after the drop out occurs. We’ve seen lots of prevention programs with varying success because they don’t have a tendency to provide the support of flexibility that’s necessary at that juncture at that time.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work and how do you work to overcome them?
Bess: The school started up so quickly, so in some ways we were scrambling to get systems together! With this population attendance has always been an issue, and if we had had more time to put systems in to place up front, we would have had been able to head off any issues with that.
Moses: We have a lot of empathy for students and tend to stick with students longer than another school would, but we also have this huge wait list and we want to really hold students accountable to the goals they set. We’re always looking for new ways to motivate students in classrooms and help them achieve certain measures they haven’t achieved before.
What have been your biggest successes so far?
Bess: On a macro level, just getting open and figuring out what we’re doing has been huge! The feedback we’ve gotten from students has been incredible – every student has a story about the reason they dropped out and how we’re helping them overcome it. They appreciate so much that they can move faster when they want or take more time if they need it. Also, the reaction in the community has been overwhelmingly positive — not a single person involved in the city hasn’t weighed in on this. We’ve been open less than a year and already they want to know how we can replicate!
What practical advice would you offer someone who aspires to a career working at — or starting — a school like the Excel Center?
Bess: Be sure you understand the needs of your community. A school like this might clash or overlap in another community. Make sure that niche exists and that there is demand. Do your homework. We leveraged our six years of running a high school, and you can’t just do this with no experience or coming from a very traditional high school model.
Moses: Good staff who are committed to flexibility are key. Especially in the first year of a school like this, your leadership staff has to be very adaptable. Our staff have literally invented curriculum, and invented ways of doing things on the fly with good humor and grace. With a rigid attitude this wouldn’t be much fun, but by being adaptable we have been able to really embrace this idea and fly with it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo: Excel Center