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Goodwill's Austin Charter Helps Older High School Dropouts Pick Up Where They Left Off

In Texas, students over the age of 25 are considered too old to educate, leaving many older high school dropouts with few ways to earn a diploma.

But a new charter school pilot program in Austin is hoping to change that. Goodwill Industries has opened a public charter school for students ages 19 to 50, which they hope to be a model for schools looking to help high school dropouts continue their education and earn their diploma.

One of those students is Georgina Hudson. When Hudson dropped out of high school in Louisiana at 16, she could barely read.

“I was in special ed[ucation]. I didn’t know how to read then,” she says. “When you in special ed, they kind of skip you, skip you, normally that’s what they do”

So, Hudson became a certified welder. She figured it was hands-on and it wouldn’t require a whole lot of reading.

Five years later, she moved to Austin. Shortly after that, she found out she was pregnant. After her son Gabriel was born, she tried to get her GED and improve her reading skills, while also working various jobs.  Then, her son was diagnosed with epilepsy and speech delays. She had to stop working on her GED to take care of him.

“I was mostly saying why? You know, when someone in your family dies, you say, ‘Why?’ I was mostly saying, ‘Why? Why I’m single? Why this and that?’” she says.

Hudson is 36-years-old now, too old to qualify for traditional dropout recovery programs.

“When you’re grown woman or a grown man and you don’t have your high school diploma, you feel embarrassed,” Hudson admits. “Sometime the words that you don’t know, you don’t want your kids to know that Mama don’t know how to read or Daddy don’t know how to read or Daddy can’t help you.”

At the Goodwill Excel Center, most of the 150 students are in their late 20’s. But some are as old as 50. When the school opened last month, many students readjusted to academic life through remedial online courses.

Traci Berry with Goodwill Central Texas says 80 percent of their classes are in-person instruction.

“Most drop out recovery schools, you sit in front of the computer and you don’t have a lot of teacher-led instruction,” she says. “We flipped that.”

Last legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill that provides state funding for the charter and Goodwill was chosen to run the program. Like other charters, the Goodwill Excel Center receives funding based on average daily attendance. But the bill also required the company to put more than $1 million towards the school.

Students are expected to earn their diploma and a trade certification, which lawmakers hope can enhance a workforce equipped to meet industry needs. Students must also pass the previous state standardized test, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills or TAKS, since most of the students dropped out of high school before the state changed to the current standardized test, STAAR. 

Billy Harden, the head of the school, says they’re not just handing out diplomas.

“We’re challenging these students to walk out of this building with skills. GED is more of a significance of, ‘I can pass a test and demonstrate some skill levels that I have that are enough to make a good grade,’” he says. “We want to do more.”

Students are assigned a life coach who helps with academic support or helps students overcome issues with health, transportation or childcare that interfere with school. Hardin says developing relationships with students is key.

“They did not have anyone at the school to make a connection with and many of these students will tell you, ‘I was gone for two months and no one ever even called to check if I was there,'” Harden says. “If you didn’t care if I was there then I don’t really want to be there.”

Raised by two high school dropouts, Hardin says he knows how hard it can be to make ends meet without that diploma.

“I could see my parents and I see my parents in some of these students...,” he says. “And I tell them, if I can come out of that struggle and my parents can come out of that struggle, then I know you can do the same.”

Student Georgina Hudson eventually wants to open her own business. But right now, life is still a balancing act. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to go to work and goes to class in the afternoon. Then she spends the evening studying with her son, Gabriel. Hudson says he’s a self-motivated student.

“But sometimes, to get to the kids, you have to able to help the parents and if you can’t help the parents and the kids are going to go under the radar and they’re going to be lost because the parents hold the kids and be able to teach them,” she says.

Traci Berry with Goodwill says this school is an investment in the lives of their students, and their student’s families.

“We know that a child of a drop out is 50 percent as likely to drop out. That goes down to five percent with a high school diploma,” Berry says. “The choice to come back, especially if they have children, that’s not only changing the trajectory of their lives but also the lives of their families.”

Goodwill is hoping to open a second charter school for students ages 19 to 26. They’re presenting their charter application to the State Board of Education later this month.

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