What it takes: Supporting adult learning in Central Texas

This blog is the fourth in a series about how organizations across Central Texas are working to help improve graduation rates for low-income students. Among all Texas metros, Austin’s low-income students have the lowest post-secondary outcomes – only 8 percent of low-income students obtain a college degree. We know that a higher education degree is a pathway out of poverty, so our partners in Austin are creating new models to address the complex combination of challenges that students face on their journey to a degree. This blog series will feature student stories and share the new models our partners are using to create pathways to success for students. Read the whole series here.

When she was 14 years old, Tari came home to a nightmare. “I got home from school, and the apartment was empty, except for what was in my room,” said Tari. “There was a note on the counter saying that if I wanted to stay there, the electricity was paid for the month, and the rent was $375.” Her mother had just gone through a bad divorce, her brother had left, and now her mother had abandoned her and left the state. Tari was a freshman in high school and wasn’t sure what to do.

She bounced from house to house. When one friend’s parents no longer wanted her, she would go to another friend’s house. Somehow, Tari managed to stay in school and made it to her senior year, only to miss a set of final exams. She couldn’t graduate. “From then on I just worked,” said Tari. “I worked two or three jobs at a time, and I was on my own. But, it was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to finish high school.”

Life went on: she met her husband, they had two kids, and she continued to work and support her growing family. Through it all, her desire to get a high school diploma remained. Now, she had a new reason to succeed: she wanted to set an example for her kids.

At the Goodwill Excel Center, we work in the education field, so we know that the lack of a high school diploma reverberates through generations – it goes beyond earning power. Children of high school drop outs are 50 percent more likely to drop out themselves, compared to their peers whose parents have high school diplomas. That is why Goodwill Central Texas opened the Goodwill Excel Center, the only high school in the state of Texas that provides free high school education to students over age 26.

What Tari knew is that she wanted that diploma, and she wanted better for her kids. Tari worked hard and graduated with her high school diploma as the Salutatorian of her class in 2017. Her perseverance is a testament to her commitment to herself and to her family.

This is where most stories about education and perseverance end. But this time, we want to tell you what happens next when someone works to get their high school diploma at the Goodwill Excel Center.

When Tari first came to us, we asked her a question we ask all our new clients: when you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? Tari has never had an answer to this question – when she was young, she was too busy surviving from home to home, and job to job.

Tari’s life coach and counselors at the Goodwill Excel Center helped her start thinking about a bigger future for herself and her family. In our 60 years of work in Austin, we have learned that adult high school students face many barriers – emotional, mental, and academic – all which stand in the way of high school success. We set out to create an experience that supports our students’ real lives, while also ensuring that they are meeting the same requirements their teenage counterparts face to earn a diploma. What’s the difference? Our high school program invests in free childcare and pre-K for students’ children, life coaching, mental health services, and career and technical education.

Importantly, we lead with a deep investment in personnel and relationships. To move past the chasm between application and enrollment, we hired an intake life coach who only works with students who have applied to school and are waiting for their term to begin. Our coach helps rising students get out in front of common barriers to attendance like childcare needs, balancing work schedules, and figuring out transportation. Further, our coach begins the academic process by providing students with diagnostics in Mathematics and English Language Acquisition, so that we place them in the classes most appropriate to their level and help them set up for success.

When Tari earned her GED, she sat down with her Goodwill coach, and together we figured out what was next. Tari and her coach secured financial aid at Austin Community College, where she is now in her third semester with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Tari found a love and passion for event management and will soon have her Associates Degree in Event Planning. Her long-term goal is to work on the events team at South by Southwest.

We’ll be right there with her. Changing mindsets, planning for the future and achieving stability after years of living in poverty requires months of practice and support. We hired two alumni coaches who ensure that our students are investing in positive outcomes for themselves in the crucial year following graduation. Our coaches collect data and provide a continuous feedback loop to the other counselors and coaches on our team, so we can provide our students with social and academic support in real time.

Tari’s family life now looks very different from how she grew up. “When I’m in school, we all sit at the table and do our homework together. It’s awesome. It’s very cool,” she said. “I wanted something different. I could have fallen into the trap of poverty. I know how it is on the other side, but I didn’t want my life to be that way.”