Three courses of algebra stood between Amanda McCleary and a high school diploma.

McCleary, 33, tried twice over the years to earn a GED certificate since dropping out of Vashon High School in St. Louis as a teenager, but the timing wasn’t quite right. When she learned from a friend about a high school for adults being started by MERS Goodwill, “I called instantly,” she said.

McCleary was one of five women in bright blue caps and gowns at the first graduation ceremony in downtown St. Louis on May 29 for the alternative high school program that started in October. A sixth student had to miss the ceremony for work.

McCleary, who clutched her diploma and a bouquet in one hand as she moved her tassel from right to left with the other, said it meant “everything in the fact that my children are watching me walk across the stage; it just was the icing on the cake.”

MERS Goodwill, the Missouri and southern Illinois branch of the national job training nonprofit, started the Excel Center high schools last year under a state contract. A 2017 law called for the opening of alternative high schools for adults, and Goodwill won the contract. The schools are funded through some state monies as well as donations to Goodwill.

McCleary had to get used to being in school again along with work and family life.

“Coming in, being an adult, you probably think this is going to be hard to adjust, but everyone’s here for the same reason, so we just kind of fell in,” she said. “Everybody helped each other study, so we were each other’s backbone through the whole process.”

She also had a support system outside the classroom.

“Being a mother, fiancé, grandmother now, it’s kind of like I just had to make it work. So it was kind of hard, but I did it,” she said.

More than 750 students are enrolled at three centers in St. Louis, Springfield and Poplar Bluff, taking accelerated classes taught from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Eight students graduated from Poplar Bluff on May 28 and seven received diplomas in Springfield on May 30. A fourth center is scheduled to open in Columbia in the fall.

There are a half million adults in Missouri without a high school diploma, including 80,000 in the St. Louis region, according to U.S. Census figures. They typically earn $10,000 less each year compared to those who completed high school.

The average age of students in the Goodwill program is 34, according to MERS Goodwill Executive Vice President Mark Arens.

“One of the things that almost every single individual says is some version of, ‘I’m doing it for my son, I’m doing it for my daughter, I’m doing it for my kids to show them how important education is,’ and that they can do tough things,” said Arens, who serves as superintendent of the high schools.

Joining McCleary in line waiting to walk into the ceremony was Tracee Brown, 43. Brown tried to contain a smile as she talked about plans to pursue a teaching certificate through St. Louis Community College. But first, she was looking forward to graduating in front of her family.

“It’s going to feel real nice,” she said. “I’ve been waiting on this day.”

For more information on Excel Center high schools, visit https://excel.mersgoodwill.org/ or call 314-982-8802.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.

Reprinted with permission from news.stlpublicradio.org.

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