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Excel Center's Nioka Clark speaks from experience

From Lafayette/ West Lafayette, Indiana

LAFAYETTE – When Nioka Clark talks about the Excel Center, a new high school for adults who previously dropped out of school, she speaks with conviction, excitement and passion about the new venture at the Howarth Center, 615 N. 18th St.

Clark also speaks from experience.

"My mother never graduated from high school and I saw how she had to struggle her entire life," said Clark, the executive director of Lafayette Excel Center, which will open its doors to students for the first time Aug. 19. "She was such a smart woman and a hard worker, but no one would hire her because she didn't have her high school diploma. To be in a situation to help people in similar situations, I had to do it. I really did."

The Excel Center is tuition-free charter school operated by Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana to give students 18 years and older a chance to return to school to not only get a high school diploma, but job certifications and some college credits. This is the nine Excel Center in Indiana. Others are located in Indianapolis's Marion County (five schools), Anderson, Kokomo and Richmond.

"In five years we hope to be all around the state of Indiana," Clark said in an interview with OurTown.com at the Greater Lafayette Indiana Black Expo Back to School Rally on July 27. "Here, we are always enrolling students. Every eight weeks bring in students. Our students have to be in school three hours a day, four days a week, so we are very accommodating for students who have to work. We have classes in the mornings, afternoons and evenings."

Clark said there are 13,000 adults without a high school diploma in Tippecanoe County, highlighting the need for the Excel Center in the Greater Lafayette area. The center has signed up 270 for its inaugural class and will accept up to 330.

Students will need to know just the last high school they attended and the application process last about five minutes, Clark said. She added, though, she understands the apprehension some may face in returning to school.

"I have an amazing staff that's caring and passionate," Clark said. "We surround the students when they wall in the door and let them know we care about them and want them to succeed. We have life coaches to help with those stresses and needs. Every student dropped out some reason and everyone there is in the same situation. We are one big family."

This is Clark's first time serving as executive director of an Excel Center, but she's hardly a newbie. One of the first hires made by the Excel Center four years ago, she has worked as a lead teacher in the Marion County centers for three years before moving on the Lafayette.

"I guess I'm equal parts nervous and excited, to be honest," Clark said. "I know every bit of the Excel Center and now it works, so I'm confident that my staff is going to be very successful. I've loved it ever since I've been here. This is my second family."

Clark, who was a high school teacher for four years before joining the Excel Center, said one of the biggest assets of the center is its drop-in child care center. She admitted it would be a struggle for students to make use of the Excel Center without that component.

"We would not be able to function without child care," Clark said. "The vast majority of our students need child care. For some, it's the No. 1 reason why they have not been able to return to school. We have wonderful ladies trained in early childhood education."

According to the Excel Center website (www.excelcenter.org), the center creates a flexible environment that gives each student a realistic path for their educational success and career.

"I was a high school dropout, and now I'm a graduate seeking a degree," the website quoted Jamieson Brewer, who completed his high school requirements and obtained 26 college credits at Ivy Tech.

"There is no place like The Excel Center," Mahogany Summerhill said, according to the Excel Center website. "I was concerned about the mix of ages when I enrolled but it is like extended family here."

Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill Education Initiatives, Inc., said on its website that Goodwill is looking forward to expanding and connecting with new community partners.

Clark told OurTown.com that the Excel Center is an opportunity for people to either accomplish immediate goals or lost dreams. She said there is an 80-year-old who had applied to attend classes.

"This is for anyone who wants to better themselves or have to sense of accomplishment, something that has always weighed on them not finishing high school," she said. "No one should have to pay for a mistake they made as a teenager."

People will get a chance to follow their dreams at the Excel Center beginning Aug. 19.

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