The Big Goal

October 3rd, 2014

News Coverage:

The Big Goal

How northeast Indiana is changing education — from cradle to career

Posted: Friday, October 3, 2014 7:00 am | Updated: 7:14 am, Fri Oct 3, 2014.

By Barry Rochford

Changing the way we educate people – youths and adults alike – isn’t easy.

It involves instilling in them a passion for lifelong learning, as well as an understanding that the future of their careers depends on continually developing, updating and improving their skills.

No magic trick, no silver bullet would allow this to happen.


Not so quick, said Linda Michael, CEO of Michael Burns Consulting LLC in Fort Wayne.

“There is a silver bullet,” she said. “It’s called collaboration. And it’s a silver bullet that not everybody understands because true collaboration means you have no turf issues, that you share everything willingly and you share it before you’re asked even – for the good of the cause.

“And the cause now is the Big Goal.”

The Big Goal, short for the Big Goal Collaborative, is northeast Indiana’s equivalent to the moon race or whatever other massive undertaking one might be inclined to compare it to. In two years, it has grown to involve more than 170 individuals across the region.

It is the concept around which all economic development activity in the region has coalesced. It is a rallying cry that has attracted the support of businesses, public and private schools and colleges, foundations and individuals throughout the 10-county area – even as the how-do-we-get-to-it part of the Big Goal remains a work in progress.

“The goal that we’re talking about is really central to the whole community and region,” said Marc Levy, Questa Education Foundation executive director. “The premise that we take here, and that I would take, is that communities that are able to prepare and have a workforce that’s prepared for the economy of the 21st century are going to thrive. Those that don’t are going to struggle to survive.”

The slow, downward spiral

Survival. It was the motivation for forming the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership in 2006. The region was dying and, in fact, the slow, downward spiral had begun decades earlier, perhaps best symbolized by the closing of International Harvester’s Fort Wayne plant in 1983.

Northeast Indiana was losing companies, jobs, wealth, you name it. Just as significant, it was losing relevance.

Early on, the regional partnership, which was formed to market northeast Indiana across the country and around the world, brought in the well-known Chicago site selector Robert Ady, who was considered one of the nation’s top experts in economic development.

John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, remembers Ady’s visit. After thanking his hosts for arranging the day’s activities, Ady quickly got to the issue at hand.

“‘I will never show any of your sites to my clients,’” Sampson recalled Ady as saying.

Talk about killing a mood.

“And you know, it’s kind of like, ‘Where’s this coming from?’” Sampson said. “But it was a turning point for us because he said, ‘Look, your sites aren’t ready for development. Just because you’re marketing the region doesn’t mean people are going to come here. You have to be relevant in the global marketplace.’

“And we started to internalize that.”

The result of that internal noodling by Sampson, the regional partnership’s staff and others in the business community was this: Northeast Indiana can compete. It can be relevant, not just in Indiana or the Midwest but around the world.

Yet its relevancy would depend entirely on its ability to develop talent – to educate its people so they have the knowledge and skills needed for the region’s future.

“There wasn’t any reason why we couldn’t be competitive in the global marketplace,” Sampson said. “All this discussion about China and India, all that kind of stuff. If they can do it, we have to be committed to this big view that we could compete as well.”

Talent took hold at the regional partnership. A partnership-created program called the Talent Initiative won a $20 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant in 2009. It helped fund the establishment of several New Tech high schools in the region and instigated new programs at area colleges tied to important regional industry clusters such as advanced manufacturing and defense.

The following year, the partnership launched its Vision 2020 initiative to improve the region’s economy and quality of life. The first of its five central “pillars” was developing, attracting and retaining 21st-century talent.

But it wasn’t enough. There had to be more. More focus. More awareness. More urgency. More ideas. More data. More successes.

So in 2012, the regional partnership and supporting businesses and organizations unveiled the Big Goal Collaborative. It became clear that developing talent meant transforming how we educate students and train adult workers – from the cradle to career.

The climb to 60 percent

The goal of the Big Goal is this: increase the percentage of northeast Indiana residents with a professional credential or an associate or bachelor’s degree to 60 percent by 2025.

For comparison’s sake, in 2009, that percent stood at less than 35.

“This is the most audacious goal you could ever imagine. It’s crazy. It’s just a nuts goal,” Mike Packnett, president and CEO of Parkview Health and past president of the regional partnership’s board, said at a recent event in Kendallville.

The Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation is the primary champion for that 60 percent figure, citing, among other things, a 2013 Georgetown University study that states 65 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require some sort of postsecondary educational attainment within six years.

The study emphasizes something that should be rather obvious: Technology has changed and will continue to change how we work. Businesses are leaner and more efficient. Jobs that require rudimentary skills or education largely have become obsolete.

In northeast Indiana, which once boasted numerous well-paying manufacturing jobs for which a high school education was sufficient, the business climate trend resulted in a problem. As those jobs dwindled, wages in the region relative to the rest of the nation declined. By 2009, average per-capita income in northeast Indiana was 79 percent the average per-capita income for the nation.

The Big Goal Collaborative is an attempt to address two challenges with one solution. By nurturing systemic changes across the cradle-to-career educational spectrum, the Big Goal seeks to reclaim the region’s relevance and boost its per-capita income.

And we can’t afford not to do it, Levy said.

“Every person who does not, who gets a job that pays less than a livable wage, costs the rest of us money to subsidize them because they’re making less than a livable wage to support themselves and their family,” said Levy, whose Fort Wayne foundation offers assistance to students pursuing their postsecondary education. “We’re subsidizing health care, transportation, housing, food, rent – somewhere along the way, it’s costing us.”

Changing this means changing the educational system.

“In many people’s minds, we think we’ve had educational systems,” Levy said. “The reality is we’ve had educational components. And so what really we’re trying to do is look at: How do we deal with this from birth all the way through to employment? How do have an educational system that prepares a workforce?”

The Big Goal Collaborative, as its name implies, stresses collaboration. It’s organized to facilitate collaboration. If it were a one-hit-wonder rock band, the title of its single would be “Collaboration.”

The collaborative, which is modeled after a similar endeavor in Cincinnati called Strive Together, is funded and staffed by the regional partnership. It’s governed by the partnership’s Educational Leadership Council, with separate “change networks” tasked with coming up with ways to propel northeast Indiana toward its 60 percent goal.

The change networks represent different parts of the educational spectrum: early childhood, kindergarten through eighth grade, high school completion technical education and postsecondary completion.

Michael and her educational consulting firm’s senior partner, Susan Burns, help lead the kindergarten through eighth grade change network.

“Collaboration doesn’t have limits. It’s the total interchange of energy,” Michael said. “And it really, really works because you don’t have an ax to grind. You come fully open and ready to work with whatever needs to be done.”

The Big Goal Collaborative in one hand offers structure while in the other it offers freedom. The regional partnership’s staff and the people on the change networks and Educational Leadership Council provide a framework within which ideas can be brainstormed, tested, advanced or discarded.

In a lot of ways, the Big Goal Collaborative acts as an incubator, using data to back up its decision making.

That incubator-like aspect of the collaborative allowed the K-8 change network to facilitate bringing University of Saint Francis students training to become teachers to the highly diverse Forest Park Elementary School in Fort Wayne and work with the kids there.

The network also assisted Marilyn Moran-Townsend, CEO of CVC Communications in Fort Wayne; the United Way of Allen County; and Project READS in putting together online videos offering tools throughout the region to mentors working with students up to the third grade who are learning to read.

The collaborative’s flexibility encourages innovation, and yet the urge to try everything at once must be resisted.

“You have to give it some time,” Burns said. “You can’t do everything all at once. It’s wise to pick two or three things a year that you’re going to do so that you can actually achieve them, and that will build momentum for people believing that change is possible.”

Change is what the collaborative is seeking. Like competing colleges and universities coming together to align academic offerings with employers’ needs. Late last year, the Big Goal Collaborative’s College to Career Action Team, or CoCAT for short, won a $375,000 Lilly Endowment grant to do just that.

“The idea behind CoCAT is that collaboratively we can have these conversations with employers instead of every single college and university asking the same questions,” said Elizabeth Bushnell, associate dean for planning and assessment at Manchester University in North Manchester.

The next step

The answers to those questions will be part of the data that drive the Big Goal forward. The data will outline and help determine how northeast Indiana reaches the 60 percent figure.

“The first step is figuring out where are we right now, and then how do we have solid data for us to work from to figure out what’s the next step, and what can we do to improve that?” Bushnell said. “Because part of the process is trying to be very data-driven, not just, ‘This sounds like it’s good and everyone feels good about it,’ but, ‘Do we have evidence that this will make a difference?’”

And there lies the ultimate questions: Will the Big Goal Collaborative make a difference? Can it change education? Will it make northeast Indiana relevant again? Can it help produce a more highly skilled workforce and drive per-capita income higher?

Kathleen Randolph thinks so. As president and CEO of Northeast Indiana Works, which operates area WorkOne Northeast career centers and provides education and job training assistance, she was standing on the front lines of this battle before the enemy had even been identified.

“I don’t know if we’re going to get there or not, but falling short of the goal is not good enough for me,” Randolph said.

“The bottom line for me is I want to win. I don’t want to be on the losing end anymore.”

What is the Big Goal?

Established through the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, the Big Goal Collaborative aims to increase the number of residents in northeast Indiana with a high-quality degree or credential to 60 percent by the year 2025.

Coming next week: Efforts within the region to advance the Big Goal; and a “snapshot” of northeast Indiana’s educational system.