Once dropouts, these adults returned to high school. Now, they’re planning for college and careers.

As the newly minted graduates — all of them former high school dropouts — crossed the commencement stage, their excitement was palpable.

One student jumped up and down in glee before crossing the stage with so much energy that she dropped her diploma. Another graduate was barely offstage when he was greeted by exuberant family and friends carrying cardboard cut-outs of his face.

They were among the 188 students from three Indianapolis Excel Center charter schools who earned their diplomas Thursday evening, with many of them overcoming tremendous obstacles to do so.

Indiana’s Excel Centers — their dropout recovery programs are replete with career training, one-on-one mentoring, and childcare — have recently witnessed explosive growth. When Goodwill Industries launched the Excel Center as an online program in 2010, just four of its 300 students graduated. Today, the charter network operates 15 physical locations throughout the state. This year, 1011 of its students will walk away with a diploma in hand. It’s the largest graduating class in the program’s history.

There’s no single path that students take to the Excel Center. Many of them are immigrants or refugees who don’t speak English well enough to hold down a job. Others left school amid financial hardship, pregnancy, mental health disorders, bullying, or other challenges. Students’ ages vary widely, from older teens to those old enough to be their parents or grandparents.

The Excel Center gives its students the opportunity to earn more than a standard diploma. The program offers college-credit courses and certificates that can help students find jobs as pharmacy technicians and IT professionals.

Indiana’s adult high schools serve some of the 12% of adults who left school before graduation. These schools are also assessed differently for performance, based on factors such as enrollment, graduation rates, and college credits or professional certifications students complete. All Excel Center schools earned A or B grades from the state in 2018.

Tonia Patterson, 18, was among this year’s graduates. Patterson enrolled at an Excel Center on Indianapolis’ west side, after being expelled from Pike High School for fighting with another student. She said the Excel Center, with its individualized attention and clear expectations, helped her move past the behavioral problems she had experienced.

Now Patterson, an aspiring obstetrician-gynecologist, plans to enroll in Ivy Tech Community College’s two-year nursing program.

“When I was at [Pike], we had to go to our counselor. They would ask me what I wanted to do, and my answer would automatically be, all the time, ‘I don’t know,’” Patterson said. “But now I’m certain that I want to go to college.”

It took longer for Erendira Hernandez Martinez, now 32, to find her way back to high school.

When she became pregnant at 14, Hernandez Martinez left school to care for her baby and to avoid embarrassment and shame.

She spent much of her adult life in and out of GED classes before enrolling at the Excel Center in Avondale Meadows at the suggestion of a coworker. For a while, she grew frustrated with the program’s demands outside the classroom, namely her life coach’s frequent check-ins. But the relationships she forged with her teachers there eventually anchored her.

Hernandez Martinez said that when she was a child, racial tensions, bullying, and a struggle to learn English had made school challenging.

“I had this wall, and I wouldn’t let nobody cross that wall because I grew up like that,” Hernandez Martinez said, a native Spanish-speaker. “I didn’t believe in myself.”

But the Excel Center has given her confidence — and options — as she grapples with job rejections and homelessness. Now her first priority is to move out of her sister’s living room and save money to attend college, where she hopes to study interior design.

She also wants to set an example for her oldest son, now 17 and a student at Arsenal Technical High School.

“I’m smarter than I think I am,” she said.