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Goodwill charter school would bring dropouts back to school

When you picture a charter school, you may imagine a crowd of youngsters in tidy uniforms learning their ABCs. But one of Shelby County’s newest charter schools, if it is approved, would serve a group of people more likely to be those students’ parents.

Goodwill Industries has applied to open a charter school in Memphis aimed at helping people who have dropped out of school to earn a high school diploma, and, ideally, get on the road to postsecondary education and better jobs.

The schools, called Excel Centers, would use a model pioneered by the Indianapolis affiliate of Goodwill Industries — the organization mostly known as a place for donating second hand clothing. Excel Centers focus on dropout recovery, and serve students ranging from teens who have dropped out of school to adults with children and grandchildren of their own.

Goodwill submitted its application to Shelby County Schools earlier this month and expects to know if it is approved some time in May. The organization hopes to open its first Excel Center in Memphis in the fall of 2015. It would serve some 300-350 students.

The schools combine online learning with classroom instruction, allowing students to work at their own paces.

“[The school] would meet a tremendous need in our community, and would extend Memphis Goodwill’s mission to remove barriers to employment,” said Trina Jones, the vice president of marketing and communications at Memphis Goodwill.

Goodwill estimates that some 120,000 adults in Shelby County do not have their high school diploma, with an additional 7,200 students dropping out each year.

Jones described some of the schools’ components: “Outreach to adult drop-outs, on-site services such as a child drop-in center, a coach who is helping each student consider “what’s next” after high school and an emphasis on post-secondary studies (academic or vocational training/certification).”

The postsecondary focus is important, said Lili Allen, the director of Back on Track Design at Jobs For the Future, a nonprofit that focuses on closing gaps in the “education-to-career” pipeline. For the program to really benefit students, “they need to be doing more than just credit recovery and test prep.”

The Excel Centers in Indianapolis have been been hailed by school choice and dropout recovery advocates as one of the best examples of successful charter school innovation.

Excel Centers in Indiana have helped more than 350 dropouts earn high school diplomas since 2010. About two-thirds of those earned industry certifications or college credit along the way and about 75 percent now have full-time jobs. Of those not yet working, some of them went onto college instead.

“Excel is very specialized because it has the older student focus,” said Andrew Moore, a Philadelphia-based senior fellow at the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities. “It’s clearly filling a really important niche, and stands in contrast to charters that work with 16–21 year olds.” 

But the demand for the schools had presented a funding challenge in Indiana: The programs draw on a pool of funds traditionally used to educate traditional students, aged 5-18 or so, to educate the adults they bring back to school. The same arrangement will likely be true in Tennessee as well. 
Growing demand

The Goodwill application comes as the number of charter schools in Memphis is increasing, and as there is continued attention to alternative school options. If Indianapolis is any indication, demand will be strong. 

In Indiana, the state had an estimated 400,000 dropouts and was adding 15,000 more each year. Goodwill pitched the idea of a charter school for dropouts to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who can sponsor charters under that state’s law.

When the first Indianapolis school opened in 2010, demand for the 300 spaces surprised Goodwill. The school’s waiting list quickly grew to 2,000. That prompted Goodwill to open more schools. It now has eight schools in four Indiana cities and plans for more.

A new charter school in Memphis that also does dropout recovery, called Pathways, is likewise already planning to expand, as its enrollment has grown from 50 to 150 students in just three months.

For each new school, Goodwill in Indiana will collect a license fee.

“It’s just recovering our cost,” said Scott Bess, the chief operating officer of education initiatives for Goodwill in Indiana. “The biggest thing from our perspective is creating a network all across the country of people who are doing pretty innovative things who can share with each other so everybody benefits.”

Goodwill has also licensed the dropout recovery charter school model to its Austin, Texas, affiliate, which has state approval to open an Excel Center there next fall.

Funding challenges

When Indianapolis’ mayor approved the Excel Centers, the plan was to fund them out of the state’s K-12 school funding formula like other charter schools. The city’s charter school office could not find any provision in state law that prevented it.

But legislators worried as the schools grew in popularity. This year, Goodwill’s Excel Centers enrolled about 3,000 students statewide. The state was soon spending a significant amount of money on these non-traditional students, many well over 18-years-old.

Indiana lawmakers responded by capping the number of dropout recovery schools there at 11 statewide last year and setting a limit of $25 million to be apportioned to such schools. But this year the cap has been lifted and a process for approving new schools established.

Some states cap the age at which a student is eligible to receive education funds, but that is not the case in Tennessee.

According to Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, “In Tennessee, we cannot disallow enrollment solely on the basis of age. And if a student is enrolled, they generate BEP funding, which then goes to the charter school.”

Reach this reporter at jzubrzycki@chalkbeat.org 

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