Finally – finally! – the time had come for Carmellia Fleming to wear a cap and gown. 

At age 31, the single mother of three fought back tears last week at Indianapolis Public Schools’ adult high school equivalency graduation as she thought about her life during the last decade after dropping out of high school.

She’s balanced a slew of unstable jobs that paid by the hour, endured a tumultuous marriage, struggled through single motherhood and even twice flunked the GED test trying to finish school.

But her parents and IPS teachers urged her to persevere through IPS’ adult education classes so she could create a better life. If she could do it, they said, she could avoid becoming a statistic: one more uneducated single mother unable to get a decent job and forced to live below the poverty line.

“When I left high school, I felt like I failed my parents. I failed my family,” said Fleming, who beamed as her name was called in Arsenal Tech High School’s auditorium. “I owe this to my parents because they’ve never seen me walk across the stage.”

For more than 50 years, IPS has helped students like Fleming, knocked off course to a high school diploma by life’s struggles, to get back on track. But Fleming and about 100 classmates are the last class of IPS adult high school equivalency graduates.

The program, which helps nearly 1,000 adults in Marion County each year, will be shifted to other providers, mostly township school districts, starting in July. In fact, IPS will soon be entirely out of the adult education business.

IPS’ adult day and evening schools, which worked with nontraditional students in pursuit of regular high school diplomas, rather than an equivalency diploma, also will close. Those students will be referred to private providers such as the Goodwill-run Excel Centers.

Those decisions were driven in part by a practical problem: the state has changed the way it funds these programs, with a heavier focus on how good a job they do. IPS, which didn’t perform well compared with the townships, was in line for a big cut.

“We’ve been working extensively with IPS over the past year because their performance hasn’t been that great,” said Joe Frank, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, which now oversees adult education programs. “We don’t want to be shipping money where people aren’t getting good results. We need to be getting the biggest bang for our buck.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said IPS might not be the best provider for adult programs anyway.

“We want to have laser-like focus on K-12 as we think about improving student achievement,” Ferebee said. “We know we will continue to be a good partner with those (townships).”

Four providers, including Warren, Wayne and Washington township school districts plus a private provider, plan to take over IPS’ high school equivalency program.

Pending board approval, Warren Township will start serving adults in School 26, the John Hope Education Center. IPS would continue to pay the utilities, provide security and some adult education supplies.

Where the other programs will be housed has yet to be decided.

Elimination of adult programs will cost about 40 IPS staff members and teachers their jobs, but most will have an opportunity to be placed in another IPS school or will be able to apply for jobs with the new high school equivalency providers.

“Services are going to continue uninterrupted but the providers will change,” said IPS board commissioner Gayle Cosby, herself an alumna of IPS’ adult day school.  “Change is always hard. I’m confident overall that what we’re doing is in the best interest of the district as a whole.”

But some, including retiring adult education director Sherry McCoy, are cautious about other programs’ abilities to serve the city’s under educated adults.

“It’s going to be somewhat of a letdown that IPS isn’t involved,” McCoy said. “Education can solve crime. Education raises employment. I really have my fingers crossed.”

‘Need being filled’

While IPS is getting out of of serving adults, others have been getting in over the past few years.

Goodwill Industries in 2010 launched its Excel Centers, for example, which each serve about 320 adults at nine free, public charter school locations across Indiana and five in Indianapolis.

IPS and Workforce Development officials say they are confident that Indianapolis adults will have good options through Excel and other programs.

“We recognize this need is certainly being filled by other providers,” Cosby said. “IPS would never have exited that field if there was a strong demand. We feel that other organizations, other districts are willing and able to pick that up.”

But McCoy said she sees extreme need every day in the urban corridors of the city that an adult education provider like IPS is uniquely positioned to fill.  During the rough winter months when IPS buildings shut down, McCoy said one of IPS’ GED teachers met with her students at a McDonald’s so they wouldn’t fall behind on precious test prep time.

“Every evening we go to bed, and the next morning one or two or three or six people are no longer with us,” McCoy said. “I know all of it can’t be attributed to lack of education, but we were working to try to attack this issue.”’

Performance questioned

Factoring into IPS’ decision to close its program is a change in the way Indiana manages and funds adult programs.

With Workforce Development replacing the Indiana Department of Education as the lead agency on adult learning, it also changed the way grants are dispersed. State grants help pay for teachers, operational expenses and supplies.

The changeover happened in 2011, and Workforce Development’s goal is to use state dollars as incentives for high-performing adult education programs by including student achievement as a factor when it decides who gets the money.

Last year more than $21 million was distributed to regions and programs across the state to deliver the services, with IPS receiving $1.2 million, the second largest sum in the region that contains Marion County providers. The grant funds will be reallocated next year among the remaining seven providers.

IPS has the worst high school equivalency attainment rate of the Marion County providers so far this year, with just 7 percent of its adult education students earning an equivalency credential, a 4 percentage point drop since last year. That compares to a 24 percent success rate for Warren Township.

At the same time performance has become paramount, the test students must pass to earn an equivalency has gotten harder.

In January, the state started administering a harder test from McGraw Hill/CTB that focuses more on college and career readiness, which has resulted in a slight dip in scores. The new test has had an 86 percent statewide pass rate during the first quarter of the year, according to Frank, compared with a 92 percent pass rate on the old GED during the third quarter of last year.

McCoy, however, argued, each program’s impact should be judged by the individual students whose lives are changed, not a test score. It’s not fair to say IPS wasn’t doing a good job, she said.

“I’m so proud,” McCoy said. “To see people make those kinds of gains and to see the tenacity, the stick-to-itiveness, through good weather and bad weather, it makes it worthwhile. We were turning things around and would have continued.”

Teacher pay for IPS’ adult educators also changed when Workforce Development took over adult education. Instead of being paid under the IPS teacher contract pay scale, McCoy said, grants called for teachers to be paid a flat rate.

McCoy says she knows one teacher who went from making $56 an hour as an IPS contract teacher to making $40 an hour.

“We could no longer consider them certified IPS teachers,” Cosby said. “We lost a lot of good teachers. Many of them were veteran teachers who were doing quite well in terms of seniority and, consequently, pay.”

‘Failure is not an option’

Arsenal Tech’s auditorium resembled any other on graduation day. Families packed in, straining to take pictures of their graduates as they sauntered inside the auditorium while a pianist played “Pomp and Circumstance.”

The only difference was that these graduates have already lived in the real world, often finding it brought more tough circumstances and less pomp.

City-County Council President Maggie Lewis urged the graduates to not let adversity get the best of them, and to keep reaching for success.

“This is your chance to start all over,” she told them.”This is your chance to become the person you want to be. This is your time.”

That’s certainly the case for Fleming, who after Thursday’s ceremony held the black, satin cap on her 5-year-old daughter Mayia’s head, dreaming aloud of watching her children walk across the stage someday.

“They’re very smart,” Fleming said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t just stop at high school. Don’t just stop at college. Go onto grad school somewhere.’”

She can already imagine being on the other side of this equation, holding the camera and wearing a proud smile as her children wear their caps and gowns.

“I want to be at every graduation,” she said, “the loudest one, screaming until I don’t have a voice anymore.”