The announcement last week that MERS Goodwill received the contract to establish four adult high schools in Missouri means thousands of Missourians soon will become part of a growing adult education trend that's expanding across the country.
MERS Goodwill operates in Missouri and southern Illinois and will establish four Goodwill Excel Centers in Missouri over the next 21 months to enable people over age 21 to receive high school degrees, free of charge.
Gov. Eric Greitens approved the four schools with his signature of a bill in July.
The four schools will open in St. Louis, Poplar Bluff, Columbia and Springfield — St. Louis first in October, then Poplar Bluff in January 2019.
"It's an aggressive timeline. It'll really mean us hustling to get these up and running," said Mark Arens, MERS Goodwill's executive vice president and chief of program services.
He said the goal is to open the Columbia and Springfield schools in September or October 2019. He believes that's feasible because the Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana opened four such schools in a year in Indianapolis.
"We wanted to replicate that," state Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, said Wednesday of the success in Indiana that was the basis for Missouri's adult high schools.
Fitzwater sponsored a bill the House passed last March with bipartisan support, and even though that bill did not make it through the Senate, it did contain measures to establish four adult high schools in the state — which then became provisions in the bill Greitens ultimately signed into law.
Arens said while adults who haven't graduated high school already have the option of passing a high school equivalency test — and that employers ought to value that certification as much as a high school degree — "'What went wrong?'" is still a question that might get at least implicitly asked of applicants with a GED or HiSET. The military also requires an entrance waiver for recruits with a GED or HiSET, he added.
The adult high school Excel Centers will provide curriculum and diplomas identical to those from traditional high schools. The schools will have flexible schedules, "life coaches" for students and English Language Learner options.
"It's a huge part of the model," Arens said of replicating such services from Indiana's Excel Centers.
He added there will be one life coach for about every 40-50 students.
"This is a model that other Goodwills have enacted in other states," he said, with 12 adult high school Excel Centers in Indiana, one in Washington, D.C., one in Memphis, Tennessee, another in Little Rock, Arkansas, and one in Austin, Texas. He said Goodwills in New York and Massachusetts are also pursuing the idea.
The Indiana program's website also lists a location in South Bend.
The News Tribune could not immediately reach a representative from another Goodwill organization for statistics on the success rate of those schools, but the News and Tribune, of Clarksville, Indiana, reported in May that since the Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana's programs started in 2010, nearly 2,400 students have graduated from the Indiana schools, "more than 3,500 have earned industry-recognized certification and 96 percent graduated with post-secondary credits through the dual-credit program."
"That'll come from working with employers in the area," Arens said determining what certifications will be available in Missouri. "We're certainly not wanting to reinvent the wheel," he added, explaining MERS Goodwill will continue to partner with community colleges to determine what employment needs are in a given area.
He said offering the certification of certified medical assistant in Poplar Bluff and St. Louis is being discussed, as has the possibility of computer coding options with organizations in St. Louis. He also noted correctional officers are in high demand.
Fitzwater said he would like some high-tech industry certification options offered in Columbia. He's a proponent of computer education and other science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Indiana schools offer certification options including in the fields of logistics, materials handling, pharmacy technician, electrical systems technician and information technology.
"With all four schools up and running, we expect the ongoing cost to be about $8 million a year," Arens said. MERS Goodwill is committing at least $2 million to pay for the initial capital investments.
Beyond that, Fitzwater said there was $500,000 in the state's budget last year for the program, and the Legislature ideally will work out another budget line item in the low millions of dollars range. None of the money is state money; it is federal money disbursed to the state for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Arens said about 85 percent of TANF recipients in Missouri don't have high school degrees, so using some of the funding to support the adult high schools is fitting.
One purpose of TANF is to promote job preparation.
The legislation that proposed the adult high schools has specific accountability metrics of graduation, post-graduation and wage indicators that must be reported annually to the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and government leaders including the governor.
"There is not a sunset clause, but it does mean each and every year we'll get to go the Legislature and be able to share those results and share those outcomes. If the Legislature and people of Missouri feel that's a good expenditure of those dollars, we'll hope to be renewed," maybe even expanded, Arens said.
Arens said the legislation that proposed the adult high schools doesn't specify whether military service of graduates would fulfill the accountability metrics, but it's something they'll consider counting, and graduates' military service fits the intent of success in the legislation.
He said the position of superintendent of the four adult high schools in Missouri will be advertised in February, and postings for teachers probably will be seasonal and regional based on when each school is anticipated to open.
For superintendent, he said, MERS Goodwill will look for "someone who knows school systems, educational theory, what works in a district to be able to educate adults and do it very quickly."
He said the idea of adult high schools is not meant to be a "quickie degree or diploma factory. This will only be successful if we maintain the rigor and the employers and universities see this as truly equal to a high school degree."
People interested in applying to one of the adult high schools can call 314-982-8802. Admission preference will be given to people who receive government assistance of any kind.