At 28 she got her high school diploma with help from the golden arches

Ashley Sayre was celebrated at the McDonald’s in Lawrenceburg on Aug. 14 after receiving her high school diploma through a McDonald’s education program.
Ashley Sayre was celebrated at the McDonald’s in Lawrenceburg on Aug. 14 after receiving her high school diploma through a McDonald’s education program. Jessica Oles

There was a party for Ashley Sayre at the McDonald’s in Lawrenceburg, but it wasn’t her birthday.

Sayre, 28, is a McDonald’s employee who dropped out of high school when she got pregnant and went through a miscarriage in 2007.

Since then, she worked various jobs, knowing she wanted to eventually get a high school diploma. However, between work and raising two children, she just never got around to it.

Recently, Sayre was celebrated at the Lawrenceburg restaurant after successfully receiving her diploma through Smart Horizons, an online education provider made available to McDonald’s employees through Archways to Opportunity.

Launched in 2015, Archways to Opportunity includes college tuition assistance, an English learning program and a curriculum designed for adults seeking a high school diploma like Sayre.

In the past two years, nearly 17,000 McDonald’s employees have benefited from Archways, with an increase of 238 percent enrollment in the second year. More than 200 employees in Kentucky have received more than $205,000 in support for their pursuits in education, McDonald’s officials reports.

Through the program Sayre was able to transfer credits she earned at Anderson County High School before dropping out. She earned the rest of the credits through online classes.

“I wanted to teach my kids that you can do anything as long you set your mind to it,” she said.

Now that she has her diploma, Sayre hopes to go on to college, she said, where she may study photography with tuition assistance from Archways.

McDonald’s director of education strategies Lisa Schumacher said she’s been asked before how the corporation as a whole benefits from Archways and if employees who go through one of the programs are less likely to stay long-term.

Her response is that McDonald’s is “committed to being America’s best first job,” and a big part of that is giving access to education.

“Some of those people will stay in our restaurants or potentially move up within the corporation, but we know many of those folks will move on to other things,” Schumacher said. “That’s part of being committed to America’s best first job — not only helping them in the job in our restaurants, but also helping them take the next step.”

Kelly Healy, owner of 10 McDonald’s locations in Central Kentucky, said the program sometimes works as a retention tool for employees when staff members stay on to receive the benefits of Archways.

“We realize that McDonald’s can be a stepping stone to different careers, we understand that,” Healy said, adding that Archways “helps us realize the needs of our employees and the importance of a good education.”

Jessica Childers, 34, has been working in restaurants since she was 16. She’s now a McDonald’s manager in Somerset. She said she never really had an interest in going to college, but when her kids hit middle school and started asking for help with homework she couldn’t understand, she thought it might be time for her to check into the program.

Her restaurant’s director of training and development brought in fliers about Archways and helped guide her through the application process, she said.

Now, Childers is beginning her third semester at Somerset Community College studying business.

“I really didn’t think I would like it, but so far I absolutely love it,” Childers said in an email. “I really wish I would have gone sooner.”

While some people look down on McDonald’s because it’s a fast food restaurant, she has found her job to have great potential for growth, Childers said.

“You get what you put in,” Childers said. “They’re always finding new and creative ways to make our restaurant better.”

Emma Austin: 859-231-1455