At 43 years old, Katina Johnson is planning her high school graduation party. It's been about 30 years since she dropped out of middle school when she found out she was pregnant.
Even before then, though, she'd never had a stable education. Her mother was addicted to drugs and moved her around a lot before she died when Johnson was just 12 years old. "That was the last time I even seen the inside of a school," she says.
More than 88 percent of American adults have finished high school. But for those who haven't, wages are rock bottom, and that's if you have a job. The unemployment rate for this group is more than 7 percent.
After having her baby, Johnson never went back to school. She had three more children, eventually losing custody of them. She was drinking, using drugs and became addicted to crack cocaine. She went to prison twice. The second time, she says something changed. "Is this really what I want? Is this where I really want to spend the rest of my life?" she asked herself.
For adults in Johnson's situation, the non-profit organization, Goodwill – maybe best known for its retail stores – has opened charter high schools in Indiana, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., and Texas.
After getting out of prison, Johnson got clean and says she thought about getting her GED. One night she was watching television and the Goodwill program caught her eye.
"Here comes Goodwill across the screen. It was so cute because it was on the news and all these people walking the stage and I was like, 'Baby, baby!'— to my husband— 'That could be me!' And he says, 'Well sign up!' And I said, 'I am, I am!'"
The campus in Austin offers something other adult schools in Texas can't. In 2014, Goodwill lobbied the state Legislature to start a pilot program for 150 students, aged 26 to 50. Texas law caps the high school enrollment age at 26. After that, you can only get a GED.
So, the Goodwill Excel Center is the only option in Texas for older adults who want a diploma. Which is important when research shows a significant wage gap between those who have a GED and those who have a high school diploma.
The Excel Center offers life coaches—kind of like guidance counselors— to develop a five-year plan with students, "To tie them into career training, have them go to ongoing school such as a community college, career certification program or four-year college, which we're seeing a lot of our students do," explains Matt Williams, vice president of education at Goodwill Central Texas.
The school also offers flexible schedules, free child care, transportation assistance and parenting classes. Some students just need a few credits, so they get their diploma in a few months. For others, it takes a couple of years. The center makes sure every student who graduates can read and do basic math.
"As a child, I never had that encouragement, I never had that support, not even from my mom," says Johnson. Her graduation ceremony isn't until June, but she's finished all her classes. When students graduate, a life coach keeps tabs on them for two more years.
Johnson's next step? She hopes that's community college, but she has some work to do before getting there. She doesn't qualify for financial aid, but it's too expensive for her to pay out of pocket. Right now, she's looking for a second job and wants to pay off current debts before taking out student loans. One thing is true. Johnson is determined to become a college student.