Resolving The Problem Of The Missing High School Diploma

Jan 5, 2018

A plan is underway in Rockford to enable people who didn't graduate from high school to earn their diploma, and more. It addresses a nationwide problem: how to bridge the gap between the needs of business and the skill set of the available pool of workers. In this Friday Forum, WNIJ's Guy Stephens has more about Goodwill's Excel Center. 

The Rockford numbers are daunting. An estimated 40,000 people in the metro area don't have either a high school diploma or a General Equivalency Development -- or GED -- certificate. That's actually an improvement from where it was several years ago, but it's still a huge group of people who don't have the skills or qualifications to get a better-paying job -- even as employers need to fill a lot of holes as the Baby Boomers retire.

Sam Schmitz, President of Goodwill Industries of Northern Illinois, says a lot of those who participate in the agency's offerings didn't finish high school.

“Not because they don't want to learn,” he said “but because life issues get in the way, and they're forced to drop out of high school for whatever reason.”

For those who don't finish high school, a GED is the alternative. Passing the series of tests in math, science and other subjects is supposed to be the equivalent – hence the name – of getting a high school education.

So, four years ago, Goodwill started the GoodGrads program. It helps people with support services – transportation, child care, money for test fees and the like -- so they can prepare for and take the GED tests and get their certificate. For many, the GED is a ticket to a better job or higher education. But not, as it turns out, for everyone.

Dr. Lori Fanello

Dr. Lori Fanello, Superintendent of the Winnebago-Boone Regional Office of Education, says she was part of the Workforce Alliance that got together with more than 50 area businesses and organizations several years ago to look at workforce problems.

“And while we were meeting,” she recalled, “the businesses said, ‘We really honor a high school diploma more than we honor a GED. And is there any way we can get, you know, more people that are past the age of being able to go back to high school, to get a diploma for them?’”

Fanello says that sparked discussion of how to meet the issue. At her office, that included exploring ways to get people to finish high school in the first place. Still, many would not.

So, if a GED is not enough, what should be done?

As it turns out, a number of Goodwill organizations around the country operate what are called Excel Centers to serve those lacking a diploma in their communities. The concept started in Indianapolis, a city that -- like Rockford -- has a large population of dropouts.

Jonathon Gates, a board member of Goodwill Northern Illinois, was an educator working in Indianapolis when the Excel Centers were started. He helped run one and opened another as director. He says Goodwill started years ago by running a more traditional charter school, but saw that wouldn't work for everyone. So they came up with the Excel Center.

Jonathan Gates

“The cool thing that they were able to do is say, ‘Yeah, you know, we're going to operate a school, but we're also going to imbed in everything else that we do,’” Gates explained. “So, they were able to imbed in child care. The job training that people typically think of when they think of Goodwill. They were able to do that along with getting that high school diploma that is so valuable.”

And, Gates says, everyone gets a life coach. He says the centers offer eight-week programs year-round that go toward a diploma and a job certification. If things don’t click, people can repeat the program until they succeed. Gates says Excel Center graduation rates compare favorably with passing rates for both traditional high school and GED programs.

Now Schmitz wants to bring one to Rockford. He says the classroom work as well as the trade skills learned in the program help cultivate so-called "soft skills" employers want – such as the ability to work in a group – that can’t be developed by studying for and passing a GED test on a computer.

Fanello defends the tests; she says they may be even harder to pass than the Excel program in some ways. But she understands employers are looking for more well-rounded applicants with the tools to succeed in the workplace.

“We have industries in the Rockford area that say that is the number one thing,” Fanello said. “If they have people who have the soft skills, it really helps them to be a good employee and be productive.”

Fanello says school systems are trying to teach those skills early on -- before students get to graduation -- but those who fall through the cracks still will need help.

Schmitz and Gates say there is ample evidence the Excel Centers work. A recent study commissioned by Goodwill estimated that Indiana saves millions of dollars over what is spent on the participants. The state no longer provides various forms of state assistance that the graduates were using, and they contribute revenue to the state as tax-payers.

Gates puts the numbers in perspective with the story of one young man he knew. Curtis was living on the west side of Indianapolis dealing with difficulties at home and in the neighborhood. Despite Gates's efforts, Curtis dropped out of high school.

This map shows the area served by Goodwill of Northern Illinois.
Credit Guy Stephens/WNIJ

Later, after Gates had started running an Excel Center on the east side of town, he ran into Curtis working a minimum-wage job at a ballpark. He persuaded him to enroll, but the distance from home proved to be too much, and Curtis dropped out. Then Goodwill opened a center on the west side, nearer to Curtis's home, with Gates in charge.

“And this time it all starts to stick; everything starts to click,” Gates said. “Curtis starts passing his classes, and at this time he's probably 20, going on 21. We get him into one of the certification classes. He gets some college credits with it, and then Curtis goes on to work with Goodwill in their job-placement world -- and lands a job making, like, $11.50 an hour, which for Curtis was a huge jump."

Gates says Curtis stuck with the job and quickly got a raise. Now, several years later, he's still there with opportunities for advancement. Gates says Curtis is now at a point where he can sustain himself through his paycheck – a big leap from where he started.

Gates says Curtis's story is not unusual: Just ask any of the Excel directors around the country. "They all have their Curtis," he said.

State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford

One barrier standing in the way of the program in Illinois was a state law limiting a high school diploma to people under 21. Schmitz and others campaigned hard to change that. A bill removing that age limit was passed and, this fall, the governor signed it into law.

One of the bill's sponsors, Rockford State Sen. Steve Stadelman, says there was little opposition in the legislature. He pointed to the tens of thousands of people in the Rockford area without a diploma of any kind.

“That situation is replicated throughout the state,” Stadelman said. “So yes, this affects Rockford, but it affects cities throughout the state because making sure we have a qualified workforce is an interest statewide. Anything we can do to encourage young adults to further their education and get a high school diploma, that's good for a community, that's good for the state."

As written, the law permits other organizations, such as a foundation or community college, to set up similar programs anywhere in Illinois. But the Rockford program is the first out of the blocks.

Sam Schmitz

In some ways, that was the easy part. The state's budget situation means there probably won't be much funding coming from Springfield for the program.

Still, Schmitz would like to open the Rockford Excel Center by 2019. He realizes that's an ambitious goal, since Goodwill will need to raise one to two million dollars before that can happen.

“That's a lot of work ahead of us, and I can't sit here and promise it,” he said, “but there's a lot more discussion on adult learning than there was five years ago. And so, we think there are quite a few funding streams that we could weave together to get that $2 million."

Those include federal grants and money from private foundations. Schmitz also thinks area businesses will want to contribute to producing a pool of workers who can satisfy their needs. That is, after all, what they -- and others around the state and country -- have been calling for.

If it is as successful as hoped, Schmitz and the others say there probably will be a push for more such centers in Illinois -- and more opportunities to help people lift themselves up.