‘NO EXCUSES’: Excel Center helps Greenfield mom achieve dream of earning high school degree


HANCOCK COUNTY — When Kaela Ballenger dropped out of Greenfield-Central High School in 2012 at the age of 17, she had no idea how challenging life would be without her diploma.

She’s spent the past 11 years working as a line cook at a Greenfield restaurant.

“If I don’t have a degree I’m making $14 an hour the rest of my life, and I can’t do that,” she said.

In February, the lifelong Greenfield resident proudly donned a cap and gown and graduated with her classmates at The Excel Center, a tuition-free public high school for adults located 20 minutes west of Greenfield.

The Excel Center is operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, Inc., a not-for-profit organization formed by Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana.

Ballenger is one of four Hancock County residents who graduated from the school in February, in addition to 15 county residents currently enrolled at the alternative high school.

Her 9-year-old son watched proudly as she made her longtime dream come true.

“It’s really changed in my household how we feel about education. Now at 28 years old, I know how important education is,” she said.

It took Ballenger about 15 months to make up the credits to earn her high school diploma through the Excel Center, since she had to take not only senior-year classes but makeup a couple of classes from her junior year.

School had always been a challenge for her, she said, “so at the end of my junior year I gave up. I didn’t like school and wasn’t getting good grades, and knew I’d have to be a super senior,” she said, meaning someone who takes more than four years to graduate.

So she quit.

Yet she soon realized that it was hard to land a decent paying job with a livable wage without a high school diploma.

She looked into earning her GED but was unable to take the required day classes because she held down a full-time job throughout the day.

Eventually a friend told her about the Excel Center.

“She said, ‘I really think you should try it out. They’re really great people.’ I told her, ‘It’s been 10 years. There’s no way I’m going back to school,’” said Ballenger.

But she did.

An acquaintance who later became her life coach convinced Ballenger that she had nothing to lose and everything to gain. She felt the same kind of encouragement from the Excel Center staff.

“They almost made it to where there are no excuses,” she said.

 Kaela Ballenger was all smiles when she earned her high school diploma from The Excel Center in Indianapolis Feb. 22. The lifelong Greenfield resident was among four Hancock County residents to graduate from the tuition-free public school, where 15 more county residents are currently enrolled.


Ballenger said the teachers and staff at the center were always there to give her encouragement, and sometimes even gas cards if she needed it to get to school.

She completed most of her classes in-person, except for a couple of algebra classes she completed online.

Now she has her sights set on enrolling at PJ’s College of Cosmetology to become a hairstylist, with help from her friends at The Excel Center, who have guided her through the process of filing financial aid paperwork and seeking out grants and loans.

“They take the approach that your education doesn’t end when you graduate,” said Ballenger, who said the staff there even helped her repair her credit.

“I still today talk to my teachers and stuff. They text and say, ‘Hey how are you? You need anything?’ They have completely changed everything about my education,” she said.

“My 9-year-old son is currently struggling in school now, so for him to see me graduate was a really big deal. He was super excited for me and said, ‘I can’t wait to do that,’” Ballenger recalled.

“When he doesn’t want to do his homework, I remind him, ‘You saw me walking in my cap and gown, you’re not going to graduate if you don’t do your homework,’ which gives him a little push,” she said.

Ballenger encourages anyone who has been putting off earning their high school diploma to check out The Excel Center, which currently operates 41 schools in nine states, plus the District of Columbia, with the goal of expanding to 85 schools by 2030.

Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana recently announced that the center received $4 million in grants to support the national expansion, from the Truist Foundation and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

According to a press release, The Excel Center offers flexible scheduling and a fast-paced curriculum. Free on-site child care and transportation assistance are available to students, along with other services that are individualized on a case-by-case basis. The Excel Center also helps students prepare for life after high school by offering college credits and industry-recognized certification courses, all at no cost.

“The Excel Center’s unique model is changing the lives of adults who were struggling to move forward professionally due to their lack of a high school diploma,” said Kent Kramer, president and CEO of Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana. “We recognize that adults have responsibilities outside of the home, and we support them by removing the obstacles that are blocking their paths to success.”

Marci Hunn, senior program director at the Weinberg Foundation, said the Excel Center supports adults in earning the education and credentials they need to secure a good job and build a career.

“We are excited to see this strong program expand to more places, enabling more people to access better economic opportunities for themselves and their families,” she said.

Since 2010, The Excel Center has helped more than 13,000 adults earn their high school diploma. Graduates have also earned more than 8,000 industry-recognized certifications and more than 12,000 dual college credits.

“For more than a decade, The Excel Center has been helping families change their economic trajectory,” said Betsy Delgado, senior vice president and chief mission and education officer at Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana.

Ballenger hopes the same will be true for her family.

“It’s really changed my confidence for me, because now my son can say, ‘My mom did it.’ It’s been a really big change for us,” she said.