Indianapolis — There were two things that always terrified Montaque Quenterel Koonce. Being homeless and doing math.
In 2008, he was forced to confront both of his fears at the same time. Koonce, a former high school dropout, was laid off from his assembly line job and then bounced from couch-to-couch of friends willing to take him in.
Yet it didn’t take long before he was out of options and living in a shelter.
Koonce turned to Goodwill , the non-profit that is well-known for tackling a variety of social problems and offering employment to the disabled, teen mothers and ex-convicts.
While working at one of the organization’s outlet stores, Koonce, 48, learned about Goodwill of Central Indiana’s Excel Center, a network of nine charter schools in central Indiana that are designed with the specific intent of luring dropouts back to the classroom.
Koonce enrolled because he said without his diploma he had few prospects for future employment.
“Either, I was going to be without a job for the rest of my life or I needed to change the situation,” he said.
Changing dropouts’ situation is exactly what The Excel Center aims to do. The schools emphasize mostly small class sizes, teachers help students learn at their own pace and Goodwill offers a host of services meant to discourage dropping out again.
There is no cost to attend The Excel Center. Free childcare is available, weekend and night classes are held year-round, and even transportation assistance is given to students who need it.
Despite the unique structure of the school, students are judged by the same academic standards as all Indiana students, which will determine future state funding. The Indianapolis mayor’s office approved Goodwill’s charter and the first Excel Center opened in 2010.
The move into education reform marks a pivot for a charity primarily known for reselling donations. But Jim McClelland, president of Goodwill of Central Indiana, said his organization is staying true to its original mission and even trying to prevent classroom problems long before students have the chance to drop out.
McClelland pointed to Goodwill’s collaboration with Nurse-Family Partnership, an organization that provides pregnancy assistance to low-income, first-time mothers. A registered nurse goes into the home on a weekly basis until the child is two-years old and helps moms and other members of the family learn how to be good parents, McClelland said.
“It’s been a really good fit for us,” McClelland said, “because now we can help link these young moms, less than half of whom have a high school diploma, with education opportunities.”
Goodwill of Central Indiana started its education initiative with Indianapolis Metropolitan High School for traditionally-aged students. It opened in 2004 and, like The Excel Center, offers the opportunity to earn college credit and technical certifications before graduation.
Since the first Excel Center charter was approved in 2010, more than 400 adults have earned their diplomas, including Montaque Quenterel Koonce. He finished with a 3.2 GPA in 2012 and later found a job at a packaging warehouse for Amazon.
“I feel the second half of my life I can get where I’m supposed to be now,” Koonce said.
Goodwill’s headquarters said the organization is studying the Indianapolis model and trying to determine if other states will be able duplicate the effort.
A version of this report will air on Thursday’s NewsHour.
This story is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.