All eyes forward

February 28th, 2014

News Coverage:

All eyes forward

Education initiative expands to create countywide plan

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:39 am, Fri Feb 28, 2014.

By Barry Rochford

Whitley Forward, which began as an effort to drive home the importance of postsecondary education and encourage students to learn science, technology, engineering and math concepts, has had a change in direction.

And its backers believe that will help sustain Whitley County’s momentum.

“As much as I loved Whitley Forward when we started it, we were kind of a one-man show here,” said September McConnell, executive director of the Whitley County Community Foundation.

Whitley Forward grew out of a mandate from the foundation’s board of directors: Board members wanted to effect change in the county, and they decided that the best way to do that was by focusing on education.

Calling the effort Whitley Forward, the foundation committed funding for STEM-centered Project Lead the Way programs at high schools, for Lego robotics programs at middle schools and for summer camps and other programs aimed at introducing students to science.

“The future job market will be built on a work force that has those skills,” McConnell said.

The foundation also was a strong advocate for Eagle Tech Academy, a New Tech school operated by Whitley County Consolidated Schools that uses project-based learning to help students master concepts. Since it opened in 2011, Eagle Tech Academy has become “the pride of the community,” McConnell said.

“There’s been a wonderful collaboration between the business community and the school, and a lot of people giving their time to go in and work with the kids,” she said of Eagle Tech Academy. “And the kids are doing just awesome work that is really (done through) a totally different way to learn.”

Last year, as the foundation’s board was doing another round of strategic planning, it came up with a new directive for McConnell.

Whitley County needed a plan — a plan to grow, to thrive. A plan with its sights set on the future.

But the foundation couldn’t create such a plan on its own.

“Something we figured out early is neither of us, nor our organizations, is really well-positioned to take on a project like that,” said Alan Tio, president of the Whitley County Economic Development Corp. “It doesn’t fit within our scope here at the EDC, and it’s not a community foundation project or (a project for) any other group that can take that on.”

Whitley County, through Tio, McConnell and several other individuals, businesses and organizations, has been involved in the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Vision 2020 initiative to improve economic activity and the quality of life across the region. Vision 2020, Tio and McDonnell thought, could serve as a template, and the experiences of those working to enact Vision 202o’s goals could be used to bolster Whitley County’s more concentrated efforts.

“How do we take those people, those organizations, those initiatives and create something around it, and use the Whitley Forward name that September had already put in place a few years ago?” Tio explained. “And then let’s build a framework.”

Tio and McConnell enlisted Scott Gabriel, COO of Parkview Whitley Hospital, in their work. They held a public meeting in December at the hospital in Columbia City, during which John Sampson, president and CEO of the regional partnership, outlined Vision 2020 and attendees brainstormed ideas for Whitley County. More than 100 people attended the event, McConnell said.

At a second meeting last month, Ellen Cutter, director of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Community Research Institute, gave an economic assessment of the county and region. People were asked to fill out a survey and if they would be willing to serve on one of five committees that mirror the five main “pillars” of the Vision 2020 initiative: 21st-century talent; business climate; entrepreneurship; infrastructure; and quality of life.

As of Feb. 24, 37 people had signed up to be on a committee, Tio said, and he anticipates more will join the effort.

Whitley Forward will share many of the same priorities as Vision 2020, but it also could highlight issues that are particularly important to residents and communities within the county, for example, building a new high school and an aquatic center in Columbia City, and supporting Main Street programs in Columbia City, Churubusco and South Whitley.

It also could push for upgrading U.S. 30, which runs through the county, to interstate-highway standards, and it would reflect the importance of the county’s ties to Fort Wayne and Warsaw.

“We know that Whitley County is tied closely with the Fort Wayne region and also the Warsaw region, so we need to make sure we’re doing all we can to support both regions,” Tio said. “Our success is tied to theirs.”

McConnell said another example of how Whitley Forward might differ from other regional efforts is that while high-school graduation rates are an issue Fort Wayne-area leaders are looking at, college completion is something Whitley County might want to address.

“Our problem, what we’re starting to feel, is the breakdown comes after they graduate and have gone to school for about a year,” she said. “There’s a huge drop-off. And we want to figure out what’s going on. Why are these kids starting school and then suddenly not completing it?”

Whitley Forward also could be a springboard for implementing programs started elsewhere, such as an initiative launched in North Manchester to help parents of kindergarten students start 529 college savings plans.

“At the very minimum, we’re shooting for increased dialogue between these entities,” McConnell said of Whitley Forward. “If we can start to build some momentum behind some of the issues and ideas facing our community — for example, the new school — then great.”

Vision 2020 and the work done across the region have gotten the ball rolling, McConnell said. Now Whitley County use that as it creates its own plan for the future.

She said: “I think that we are really fortunate for the work that’s going on at the regional level. And I feel momentum. I just feel like more people are getting it. More people are wanting to get involved.”