A Fresh Chance at a High School Diploma

Goodwill Excel Center Students commit to a chance at a career
Photograph By
Christine Rushton

Instructional staff at the Excel Center prepare for the first day of classes during a meeting on Aug. 19. 

She raised three boys, helps care for her 11-year-old grandson, and spends her free time giving back to the homeless. She fought breast cancer, replaced both her knees, and underwent nine surgeries. Tanya Nash, 57, doesn’t give up.

So when the Goodwill Excel Center (1776 G St. NW) offered her a second chance at earning her high school diploma, she jumped. “If you want to grow, you have to go where you’re going to better you,” Nash said. “You really can’t stand still. You have a purpose in life and you need to fulfill it.”

Nash and about 325 students from Wards 7, 8, and 5 started working toward earning their high school diploma – not a GED – at the Excel Center, a DC-certified adult public charter school for residents, in August 2016. Funded through the city, it offers 12 classrooms with Smart Boards and new equipment. Its staff of 22 includes 11 instructors, four academic success coaches, a college transitional counselor, and a career pathways specialist. Childcare certified by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is provided by the YMCA for 25 children of students. Classes cover high school subjects like social studies, English, math, and reading.  

Nash tried to take the GED but struggled to pass the math section. She continued to work on her skills though, earning certification as a medical assistant and by taking a computer course through Jubilee in Ward 8. She feels that this time, with the help of one-on-one counseling at the Goodwill Excel Center, she can overcome her math challenges.

Nash decided to start school again at the Excel Center in part to act as a role model for her grandson. “I want my grandson to stay in school,” she said. “I want him to be the type of grandchild that knows school time is school time and study time is study time.”

School Is Your Job

Some of the areas in Wards 7, 8, and 5 challenge the residents when it comes to staying focused on education. Nash, who lives in Ward 8 along Minnesota Avenue – “The Avenue” for those familiar with the drug and gun activity there – explains that even the environment or people around a person can steal the focus from school.

But with the Excel Center located in the heart of DC’s business district, she can dedicate herself to learning as she would while earning money at a job. “I believe that if you live in a positive setting, it will make you want to learn more,” she said. “I’m not saying anything is wrong with where I come from, though.” She keeps up volunteering at her local church and dropping off bags of food for the homeless in her neighborhood because she values her community, she said. But she also wants to better herself.

Goodwill of Greater Washington chose the site in Northwest to help students feel that when they arrive at school they take on a professional role in their own lives, said Goodwill of Greater Washington’s president and CEO, Catherine Meloy. “We’ve placed this school in the business community because it is now their job to complete high school,” Meloy said. “All of those factors I think will lend to the success of them actually graduating.”

Goodwill in DC worked with the Marriott Marquis Jobs Training Program in 2013-12 to help residents gain the skills to apply for a local job in hospitality, Meloy said. The Goodwill team realized that thousands of DC residents try to find jobs without a high school diploma on their resume, and decided to start the Excel program. DC’s growth as a knowledge-based economy also helped Meloy and her team gain the support of the local Goodwill board.

They used social media and reached out to local nonprofits and homeless shelters to find more than a thousand people interested in applying. People can visit www.dcgoodwill.org/excel-center to learn more about the program.

Each student takes the 24 credits necessary to graduate, but at least five of the credit hours near the end of the program focus on helping prepare for obtaining an industry certification, said the director of the Goodwill Excel Center, Amina Brown. A tailored curriculum and visits with industry professionals help them obtain industry-recognized credentials in hospitality, healthcare, construction, information technology, and security. “This can help them get a job that leads to a career,” Brown said. “Our students want this high school diploma and value it.”

Preparing for a Career for Family and Yourself

Students ages 22 to 39 make up about 60 percent of the students at the Excel Center. Women make up about 75 percent of the students in the program’s first year, which runs a rolling admission of five eight-week terms, said Colleen Paletta, vice president of workforce development at Goodwill of Greater Washington. Each student gets a DC One Card if they’re under 22 or a WMATA Metro Card to ride to school. The center operates from Monday through Thursday only. “They need those Fridays to take care of their families and other things that are going on in their lives,” Paletta explained.

Many students list this program as their second, third, or fourth attempt to get a GED or a diploma. The team of counselors and career coaches monitors each student one-on-one as soon as their application is accepted, Paletta said. The student and coaches discuss past barriers and possible future ones and a plan to overcome each.  

Even if a student tests below high school math and reading levels, Goodwill’s instructors will help them. “It’s a rigorous environment. It’s built on relationships and relevance for the students,” Paletta said.

The team also realizes the unique motivation students often share as they talk about why they chose to enter the program. It isn’t necessarily for them. It’s for those they support and who support them. “Most of the people here are coming for a diploma, first for their children and second for their brother or sister or family,” Meloy said. “The motivation is for them to be something different than they are today, for someone else.”

Whatever the case, Goodwill vows to support them whether they graduate in a few months or two years.

Nash started school again on Aug. 22. She hopes to graduate within two years, but said she doesn’t want to rush herself. As an artist she hopes she can continue to enhance her painting skills and use her new education to venture into the business of making her work of professional quality. “That’s always been a dream of mine, to put my artwork on canvas,” Nash said. “I just won’t give up on me because I know me and I know what I can do.” 

A new Goodwill Excel Center student works in the computer lab before the start of school on Aug. 19.
Tanya Nash, 57, is a Goodwill Excel Center student. She started in the program’s inaugural term on Aug. 22.

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