School of second chances: Adult learners get a shot at earning high school diploma

A new program is offering adults across the country classes at no cost.

At 15, Tyeeshia Cannady had to leave school when she became a mother.

The 33-year-old Baltimore resident, even though she had help from her parents, had to focus on work to keep her children safe and healthy.

Today, the mother of seven is getting a second chance through a new program.

Cannady attends classes at the Goodwill Excel Center in downtown Baltimore to earn her high school diploma at no cost. She told "Nightline" that this is the first time she has caught a break since she dropped out.

Tyeeshia Cannady as a teenager in an undated photo.
Tyeeshia Cannady

"I've been trying to get my GED for a while, but life has happened in between," she said. "There was no support…I put it on the back burner for so long."

The Baltimore Excel Center opened in September and is funded by a mix of donations, state and federal funding. It provides adults who once dropped out of high school with classes, career planning and other services to finish their high school degree, like day care to provide that support.

Cannady said she has felt welcomed by the facility's staff.

“I'm not just a student. My kids are not just a number... I'm not just a number to the school. I am a person here. My children are people here," she said.

Tyeeshia Cannady speaks with "Nightline."
ABC News

Goodwill has opened over three dozen Excel Centers across the country, and is open to all ages.

Experts say there is an ongoing need for these types of facilities.

Cannady was one of more than 420,000 students who dropped out in the 2006-2007 school year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since then, 7 million or more young people have withdrawn from high school, according to the data.

Adult students at the Goodwill Excel Center in downtown Baltimore work to earn their high school degree.
ABC News

Sonya Douglass, an associate professor of Education Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, told "Nightline" that people without high school diplomas face an uphill battle for employment.

The median weekly income for someone who doesn’t complete high school is roughly 25% less than a high school graduate, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"It's very important that learners are able to complete school so that they don't run into those challenges," Douglass said.

Ashley Gaines-Seay, a life coach at Excel, told "Nightline" that she has seen a lot of students who come from families where no one earned a high school diploma, and that has held them back.

Ashley Gaines-Seay speaks with "Nightline."
ABC News

"We see that it's kind of a pattern within the families and they really want to break those cycles," she said.

Shamar Rice, a 22-year-old Excel student, told "Nightline" that he was among that group, revealing that his mother and brother both dropped out of high school.

Rice said he was bullied at school and couldn't stay motivated to go to classes.

He is pursuing acting, has appeared on television and has recently been accepted to a performing arts school in Los Angeles, but cannot attend until he gets his high school diploma.

"I will be breaking a generational curse in my family," Rice said of finishing high school.

Shamar Rice attends classes at the Goodwill Excel Center in downtown Baltimore.
ABC News

Cannady also said that her goal of completing high school goes beyond the diploma.

She has over come a lot in the years since she dropped out of school. One of her children was murdered by a boyfriend who abused her, and she has worked hard to take care of her family.

Completing this goal would be a personal accomplishment that showed she persevered, Cannady said.

"I don't want to leave this Earth and the only thing is like, "Oh, she just had children. She didn't finish school. She just had children,'" she said. "Now it's like, 'She had children, but she also went back to school. She completed school.'"

ABC News' Kyle Rollins, Stephanie Lorenzo and Jada Clarke also contributed to this report.

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