Earlier this month, Penn Foster traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to participate in The Salvation Army National Social Services Conference, which brought together 500 Salvation Army officers and employees from the organization's social services branch. They came from across the United States to share best practices on how to improve and enhance the caring and support that they provide to those in need.

It was great to spend time learning about work of the Salvation Army. What struck me was the astonishing size of their operations. Everyone is familiar with The Salvation Army "red kettle" around the holidays, but I think most people fail to realize the breadth of services The Salvation Army offers and the scale at which they operate.

Did you know The Salvation Army assists more than 25 million people each year? Or that The Salvation Army operates 7,551 physical centers, offering programs such as alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers, community centers, senior citizen centers, medical facilities, group homes, and temporary housing? Take a look at more figures like these on The Salvation Army's annual report. It's impressive.

The Salvation Army Community Centers are just one impressive community-building institution, with the 26 state-of-the-art Kroc Centers acting as their flagship facilities. The Kroc Centers are named for Joan and Ray Kroc, the founders of McDonald's, who gifted $1.5 billion to The Salvation Army to build community centers across the country. Kroc Centers provide opportunities in arts, education, and athletics for children, adults, and families in underserved communities.

One of the important services The Salvation Army community centers provide is education. In 2016, they launched The Salvation Army Digital Learning Program for 200 Salvation Army after-school programs, which "is aimed at empowering youth and communities with meaningful and critical life skills in areas such as financial literacy, digital preparedness, STEM readiness, health and wellness, and diversity and inclusion."

We had the opportunity to expand the scope of The Salvation Army's "education vision" by presenting a workshop on blended learning. Blended learning is an education program that blends online learning with traditional classroom style. In a blended learning environment, students are in a supervised, classroom-style location but possess some degree of control over when, where and how quickly they take the program.

The workshop was a case study on The Choice is Yours (TCY) program, offered by JEVS Human Services in Philadelphia. TCY is an innovative diversion program that offers first-time, non-violent felony drug offenders with an alternative to the one to two year prison sentences they face. One of the key elements to the program is Penn Foster's online high school diploma program that equips participants with the education and skills required to gain employment, enroll in college, and build a brighter future.

It was a humbling experience to stand in front of individuals who dedicate their lives to serving others, but also gratifying to share with them how Penn Foster's online high school diploma helped TCY participants turn their lives around, and how it is a great alternative to high school equivalency exams, such as the GED, for adults who did not graduate from high school in the traditional manner. Everyone we spoke with shared our belief in the power of education and skills training for improving the trajectory of people's lives.

The way the TCY program utilized education was amazing because of its impact on the lives of young people who were previously traveling down a bad path in Philadelphia. Perhaps more amazing is the potential of similar education initiatives if adopted by an organization like The Salvation Army with its global footprint. Already deeply embedded in communities across the United States and around the Globe, I couldn't help but think about the potential impact of The Salvation Army delivering education programs like a high school diploma, career and technical training, soft skills training, and Associate's and Bachelor's degree programs.

The Salvation Army can become a leader in youth and adult alternative education pathways.  High-quality, affordable "blended" education and training can easily plug into the existing physical and social support resources of the Salvation Army. They are in a unique position to help eliminate the "skills gap" across America.

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