The Goodwill building in Roanoke will host a high school for adults, a grocery store, a bank and a wellness center. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Plans are in motion for Goodwill Industries of the Valleys to open a free high school for adults in Roanoke.

The school, known as the Excel Center, will be the first of its kind in Virginia. It will offer morning and afternoon classes along with child care and support services for adult students. 

Mary Ann Gilmer, chief external affairs officer for Goodwill, said that about 13,000 people who are 25 or older in the Roanoke region don’t have a high school diploma or GED. And while an increasing number of careers are available to people who don’t have a college degree, a high school diploma is still non-negotiable for most jobs.

People with a high school diploma earn a median of 30% more per week than those who didn’t graduate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Goodwill says Excel School graduates make more money than they did before completing their diploma and are more likely to take college classes or earn professional certifications. “All the groundwork has been laid before us. We know it works,” she said of the Excel Center model, which already has more than 30 schools in six states and Washington, D.C. 

Though the school was announced in November, opening a school isn’t quite as easy as setting up desks and hosting a ribbon-cutting.

First, the law needed to be changed to allow a nonprofit to open a school to serve adult students throughout the region. Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, and Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, co-sponsored legislation in the 2023 General Assembly session. The governor signed off on the bill last week, but the new law doesn’t take effect until July.

Meanwhile, Goodwill is working on an education plan for the school to meet the standards set by the state for every high school. Head said that once the Roanoke facility is established, it can potentially serve as a model for additional Excel Centers in Virginia. 

Goodwill of the Valleys serves 35 counties in Central, Southwest and Southside Virginia. It currently offers free GED programming through Roanoke Valley-Region 5 Adult Education, a consortium of local school systems providing adult education. 

Both options will be available once the new high school opens. “Sometimes, the GED is the best and fastest option and other times, individuals either want the high school diploma or need additional wraparound services to make their education time possible,” Gilmer said. Those wraparound services may include child care, help paying for public transportation or gas, or career coaching.

School to be part of Melrose Avenue community hub

The Excel Center will be located at Goodwill’s current regional headquarters on Melrose Avenue in Roanoke. But renovations will include more than creating a school: A grocery store called Market on Melrose, a bank and a wellness center are also coming to the plaza. (The Melrose Branch of Roanoke Public Libraries will remain in the plaza.)

Goodwill will operate the school and grocery store and announced on Wednesday that Bank of Botetourt will open a branch in the plaza. There are only two full-service bank branches in the wedge of Northwest Roanoke between Shenandoah Avenue and Interstate 581, west to Peters Creek Road. 

The wellness provider has not yet been announced, but all four components are expected to be open by the end of 2024. 

The pandemic prompted many roles at Goodwill’s regional headquarters to go remote or hybrid, and the staff found that “the building was not full and bustling like it was prior to COVID,” Gilmer said. 

Placing the school and other services at the Melrose Avenue site ensures that students will have access to multiple bus lines, she explained. Adding a grocery store will help alleviate Northwest Roanoke’s food desert. 

To make space for the new amenities, Goodwill will downsize its administrative offices and relocate some of the services it offers now in the Melrose building, including day support and older worker programs. She says those programs will still be accessible to those using public transportation.

Goodwill plans to host art shows, concerts and other events to familiarize people with the plaza as renovations get underway. “Even after we open the plaza, we anticipate continuing that work of hosting community events” for residents of Northwest Roanoke and the entire city, Gilmer said.

The nonprofit plans to raise about $5 million for the project, with another $10 million pledged by the city of Roanoke. The city’s contribution will come from pandemic recovery funds intended to bolster economic development and public health.

Additional offerings beyond high school diplomas

The Excel Center concept was started by Goodwill’s regional office for central and southern Indiana in 2010, and since then, more than 10,000 students have completed their high school diplomas through Goodwill schools. 

For the Excel Center in Roanoke, the biggest challenge right now is that it’s the first of its kind in Virginia. “There’s no precedent for how you do anything, like working with the state,” Gilmer said. 

Once it opens, the school expects to welcome about 100 students from throughout the region, though Gilmer says word of mouth is expected to increase enrollment over time. 

The nonprofit also says students will also be able to take certification and community college classes at the school to further their education — also for free. Details on those programs have not yet been released.

Goodwill of Kentucky opened its Louisville Excel school in fall 2022. Marsha Berry, the school’s director, said credential offerings are chosen based on interest from students as well as demand from the local job market. Options currently include training as a pharmacy technician or medical billing and coding specialist, certification in the Microsoft Office software suite, and food handling certification. 


Correction 10:14 a.m. March 30: Gov. Glenn Youngkin last week signed the legislation that paved the way for the Excel School. The status of the bill was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. Additionally, Mary Ann Gilmer’s title was incorrect in an earlier version of the story.

Lisa Rowan.

Lisa Rowan

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at