Teresa Gonzalez married young. Although she stayed in high school at first, Gonzalez soon miscarried and fell into a deep depression. In her senior year, she dropped out of school.
But after Gonzalez, 26, had three daughters, she decided to go back.
“They needed somebody to look up to,” said Gonzalez, who is now a pharmacy technician, of her children.
Finishing her education would make her a better role model, she thought.
On Thursday, Gonzalez was one of nearly 200 students who graduated from the Excel Centers, a network of dropout recovery charter schools run by Goodwill Industries. Including spring graduates, about 400 students in Marion County earned high school diplomas through Excel in 2015, according to the center.
That’s a dramatic boost for the Excel Centers, which graduated just 4 students in the first year they opened in 2010. Since then, the network has been growing its enrollment by hundreds of students each year and has now expanded to 11 campuses, six in Indianapolis. Statewide, 846 students graduated from Excel Centers in 2015, 33 percent more than last year.
The Excel Centers in Indianapolis have been hailed by school choice and dropout recovery advocates as one of the best examples of successful charter school innovation.
In 2014-15, 92 percent of graduates earned industry certifications or college credit along the way. Most get jobs that make more money than they made before or go on to college.
Excel has fueled its growth by opening several new schools. In 2011, it opened four schools outside of Indianapolis. The same year, expansion was briefly stymied by a state law capping the number of dropout recovery charter schools at 11 — an effort to prevent the schools from drawing money away from funds primarily intended for K-12 schools.
But in 2014, the legislature shifted course, changing the law to allow new dropout recovery charter schools in years when the legislature allocates enough money to support them.
Since then, Excel has grown even more, adding a new Indianapolis school and a Noblesville campus in August. The network is planning to open additional schools, though it has not released the locations. Last year an Excel Center opened in Tennessee and this year one opened in Texas. Goodwill locations in other states, and even in Canada, are looking at opening similar schools.
In their Indianapolis hometown, an Excel graduation is an especially jubilant, and sometimes emotional, scene for graduates who have waited a long time to wear a cap and gown.
At most high school graduations, the crowd of onlookers is filled with proud parents cheering on their children. But at Excel, it’s just as likely to see children fill the gym seats and crowd forward in the aisles to celebrate their parents as they receive diplomas.
Three out of five Excel students have children under 18. Like Gonzalez, many of those parents return to school not only to improve their job prospects but also to set an example for their children.
That’s also why Ryan Durrett, who has two young sons, decided to go back to school.
“I wanted them to look at dad and be like, ‘dad, I want to do the same things you did. I want to get my diploma and I want to work hard to get to where I need to go in life,'” Durrett said.
Durrett completed his senior year of high school in 2007, he said. But after he failed the exam required to graduate, he gave up and quit school without a diploma.
For years, he worked odd jobs. But after graduating from Excel, he is studying business at Ivy Tech Community College, and he plans to start his own beauty supply business.
He’s not intimidated by that challenge after overcoming all the barriers he had to cross to earn his diploma.
“It feels like a lot of pressure has been lifted off my shoulders,” Durrent said.