Goodwill Building High School for Adults in Colorado, Daycare Included | Westword

Goodwill of Colorado Building Free High School for Adults, Daycare Included

The new school in Aurora will offer free tuition, daycare and career assistance for students.
Adults who didn't finish high school will have the chance to get their diploma for free at a new Goodwill Excel Center in Aurora.
Adults who didn't finish high school will have the chance to get their diploma for free at a new Goodwill Excel Center in Aurora. Bennito L. Kelty
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Adults who couldn't finish their high school education will have a second chance to earn their diploma and improve their job options at the new Goodwill Excel Center, a tuition-free school meant to boost the local workforce.

"Currently in Colorado, there's over 300,000 individuals without a high school diploma or GED," says James Sanchez, the president of career development services at Goodwill of Colorado. "Right here in the Aurora area, there's somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000."

Excel Centers are adult high schools meant to develop the local workforce. During the past decade and a half, Goodwill has opened 41 Excel Centers in nine different states and Washington, D.C. Colorado is one of four states where new centers are opening; the location in Aurora, at 15445 East Iliff Avenue, opens on August 5 and will be the state's first.

Sanchez says that more than 3,000 people without a high school diploma or GED live within a two-mile radius of the Aurora Excel Center's future location. "As you can imagine, that has a significant impact on financial stability or their ability to increase their income and promote generational wealth," he says.

The adult high school will operate with the help of $4.7 million from the Colorado Department of Education, which will be spread out over three and a half years. Goodwill of Colorado is paying roughly $2.4 million of its own money to renovate and equip the site, which used to be the Reign Church. The ongoing operating cost of the school will be $2.4 to $2.8 million a year.

Only adults ages 22 and older can enroll, but everything the school offers is free, including tuition and the daycare that will be in the school. The Colorado Department of Education will recognize the diploma, Sanchez assures, as the school will be accredited like all other Excel Centers and public schools.

"My hope is that by the end of the first year, we'll have 150 students. By the end of the second, 250, and by the third year, we'll be at full capacity, which is 300-plus," he says. "We can take up to 400 individuals in this facility."

So far, 89 people have "expressed interest" in the Excel Center through a survey, and seventeen have applied, which can be done online. The school has rolling admissions, which means it has no application deadline.

Each class will give students a half credit, and they need 22 credits to graduate. Students will go to class Monday to Thursday. Fridays will be an "open day" in case they need to meet with teachers, tutors or other support staff, or just use the computers, Sanchez says.

Students who have completed some high school will be able to transfer previous credits as long as their transcripts are accessible. Sanchez says he expects students to enroll with no high school credits or without access to high school transcripts, especially among the refugee and immigrant populations.

"They may not be able to get their high school transcripts, or those transcripts might not translate here to the United States," Sanchez explains.

Students without high school transcripts will be able to test into the right level, he adds. For students who come in below a ninth-grade level, the school will offer remedial classes to get them to the high school level.

The computer lab on the first floor will be open most of the school week for students to use on their own time and in between classes. They can take classes online, do research or work on résumés and cover letters, but Goodwill is also trying to "bridge the digital divide," Sanchez says. 

"Our assumption is that a lot of the population we're going to be serving is not going to have computers at home or internet access," he says. "Our expectation is that a lot of those individuals will come here to access the computer lab." 

The class schedule of each student will depend on how far along they are in their high school education and how soon they want to finish. The school will have four classes a day, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., except on Fridays.

"Students have the flexibility to take one class if that's all they need," Sanchez says. "If they need multiple classes that they can fit into their schedule, that's fine."
click to enlarge A man stands in a room.
James Sanchez expects more than 300 students will be enrolled in the Excel Center within the next three years.
Bennito L. Kelty
The year-round schedule will offer five eight-week sessions. Students don't need to be enrolled continuously, and "if they need to take a break between sessions, that's fine," Sanchez says. Most students will be able to get their high school diploma in eighteen months, he estimates.

"We understand that they've got a life outside of here," he says. "They've got children. They've got work."

As at many public high schools, students can also take dual-enrollment courses for college credit, and the school aims to "get all of our students some kind of industry-recognized certificate" when they graduate. 

The on-site daycare is open for up to 39 children between ages two and a half and twelve. The school can't take younger infants because fire safety standards require enough exits to roll out cribs.

Once fully staffed, the Excel Center will have a dozen teachers and classrooms, with each room able to hold upwards of 24 students. The school will only have eight teachers the first year, but Sanchez expects all twelve teaching slots to be filled once enrollment hits capacity.

Some teachers will specialize in areas such as English as a Second Language, special education and college and career readiness classes. Support staff and guidance counselors will help students pick courses and set their schedule as well as find jobs, housing or child-care assistance.

"It's a whole wraparound service, the goal being to remove as many barriers as possible," Sanchez says.

While the school is considered a high school, Sanchez calls that "a bit of a misnomer, because if somebody comes in at a third-grade education level, we will meet them where they are at." Adults can come in at any level of education, he notes, but if they're further behind, they might need more than eighteen months to graduate. 

Because the school is funded by the state, the Excel Center will be able to accept anyone regardless of immigration status, according to Sanchez, but they must live in Colorado. Applicants cannot already have a high school diploma (GEDs are accepted), and the school also vets against sex offenders.

Even though Goodwill is best known for its thrift stores around the country, it's actually a workforce development nonprofit, Sanchez points out.

"Goodwill has a long history of providing workforce development programs," Sanchez says. "The very first program that was started in Boston by Goodwill was a workforce development program. They took donations that were broken, and they employed people to fix them and resold them as a way to get those individuals wages."

Goodwill doesn't control local branches like the Goodwill of Colorado, which oversees local Goodwill donation centers and stores. There are more than 150 independent Goodwill nonprofits, operating more than 4,000 thrift stores across the U.S. and Canada.

The Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana opened the first Excel Center in 2010 in Indianapolis. That Indiana Goodwill built up the model for the Excel Center and continues to license the idea to other local Goodwills, Sanchez says.

A Colorado Excel Center has been in the works since before 2019, when the Goodwill of Colorado formed through the merger of two Colorado Goodwill nonprofits, Goodwill Industries of Denver and Discover Goodwill of Southern & Western Colorado, he adds.

But until 2023, Colorado adults older than 21 had to get a GED, which relies on a set of exams. With lobbying by Goodwill of Colorado, those laws changed last year to allow adults to receive their high school diplomas through in-person programs.

Goodwill of Colorado owns the entire strip mall where the school is being built. It started building the Excel Center on January 2, shortly after the lease ended for the last tenants.

The $4.7 million grant from the state Department of Education will cover the salaries of the dozen teachers who will work at the school once it's fully staffed. Goodwill of Colorado is looking for other funding sources to help cover the operating costs, Sanchez says. For the time being, the school will rely on funding from the state and Goodwill of Colorado.

"Our goal is that we get permanent funding from CDE," Sanchez says. "This is a public school. In my opinion, it's no different than any K-12, and serves a very large purpose and serves a very large need in the community." 
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