Work of many leads to one shared goal

October 17th, 2014

Work of many leads to one shared goal

Education, training shifts aim to better connect students with careers

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2014 11:00 pm

By Barry Rochford

Principal Eva Merkel knew transforming Lakeland High School to engage students in project-based learning was the right thing to do.

Validation of this “huge paradigm shift” is demonstrated in numerous ways, such as a student requesting a worksheet.

“When I got that, I’m like, ‘We’re doing the right thing,’” Merkel said. “Somebody’s begging for a worksheet, really. We’re pushing them.”

Lakeland is one of six New Tech high schools in northeast Indiana receiving funding through the Talent Initiative – the precursor to the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Big Goal Collaborative. The other five schools are in Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington and Whitley counties.

Formed in 2012, the Big Goal Collaborative is working to increase the percentage of northeast Indiana residents with a college degree or a high-quality credential to 60 percent by 2025.

According to the collaborative’s recently released snapshot report, just 37.4 percent of the region’s residents possessed a degree or credential in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. Using the current rate of increase, that percentage would only rise to 45.2 percent by 2025.

If northeast Indiana is to reach the Big Goal, New Tech high schools’ teachers and administrators will be leading the charge.

More on the Big Goal

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• For information on the Big Goal Collaborative, visit

Backing the goal

Six organizations have formally adopted the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Big Goal Collaborative: Fort Wayne Metals; Northeast Indiana Works; North Adams Community Schools; the Mayors’ and Commissioners’ Caucus; the Wabash County Promise; and Wabash County Community Foundation.

In addition, more than 75 northeast Indiana organizations are participating in the Big Goal Collaborative’s work.

By using project-based learning – often with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – New Tech schools tie what’s taught in the classroom to what students might encounter in the real world. Students work together on teams and hold each other accountable for successfully completing projects designed from the ground up with educational standards in mind.

“We have more kids who are engaged because it’s kind of hard to hide in an environment like this,” Merkel said. “Kind of like work. If I’m not pulling my weight, my team’s going to know.

“When you think about it in retrospect, we’re social animals. This is how we learn. This is how we’re expected to work someday. Why have we been using this old model that doesn’t support what the workplace needs?”

But it’s not just about meeting workplace needs. Schools are shifting to project-based learning because it can help students develop an important skill: adaptability.

“The statistics say they’re going to have multiple employers, multiple career changes,” said Joshua Wenning, executive director of the Region 8 Education Service Center of Northeast Indiana in Decatur, which provides professional development programs for school corporations. “And so they need to be prepared to take things and be flexible, and to adjust and to learn how to figure out what is it that they’re expected to do, and then how do they work to achieve to their maximum potential?”

A collective effort

By funding and staffing a multiyear endeavor to have 60 percent of the region’s residents possess a college degree or credential, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership determined that investing in education is the best way to secure future business investment throughout its 10-county area.

“We want things to work better so we can bring more money into the region and increase per-capita income,” said Ryan Twiss, director of the collaborative.

The collaborative is attempting to achieve the goal in two ways. The first is by encouraging educational institutions, nonprofit organizations and workforce training providers to align their efforts to address the entire pre-kindergarten through postsecondary educational spectrum.

“No institution can do it by itself,” said Jerrilee Mosier, chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College Northeast in Fort Wayne. “It has got to be a collaborative effort where we leverage each other’s strengths and understand by working together we’re stronger than we are standing alone.”

The second way the collaborative is attempting to reach the goal is by facilitating projects that address indicators along the educational spectrum, such as third-grade reading. A 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation study states third-grade students who can’t read at grade level are four times less likely to graduate high school by age 19. Factoring in poverty, they’re 13 times less likely to graduate compared to students from more affluent backgrounds.

The projects are developed within the Big Goal Collaborative’s Educational Leadership Council and a collection of mostly volunteer-run “change networks” that address specific parts of the educational spectrum: early childhood; kindergarten through eighth grade; high school completion; technical education; and postsecondary completion.

The high school completion network that Wenning helps lead is targeting graduation rates. According the snapshot, 90.3 percent of students in the region graduated in 2012-2013, but the graduation rate fell to 87.4 percent for students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches and 75.9 percent for English language learners.

Wenning’s network has convened a regular series of meetings for area high school principals and is similarly bringing together high school counselors. A simple meeting can help, he said.

“There are a lot of great things going on out there that work,” Wenning said. “And the tough part is how do we help share that with everybody so that principals aren’t constantly trying to reinvent the wheel and, in turn, the teachers aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel every time?”

Aligning opportunities

The Wabash County Promise, created last year by the Wabash County YMCA, formally adopted the Big Goal. The program encourages families to start college savings accounts for their children and prompts young students to think about their education beyond high school.

This year, the Promise program expanded to Noble, LaGrange and Whitley counties; Noble and LaGrange K-3 students recently spent part of a day on the campuses of, respectively, Huntington University and Trine University.

At Ivy Tech Northeast, the collaborative doesn’t shape the community college’s curriculum, but it informs offerings. The college makes a point of attuning its classes and programs to in-demand careers or skills, such as partnering with Northeast Indiana Works on commercial driver’s license and industrial maintenance programs and helping Burmese refugees earn their nursing assistant, dementia care and CPR certifications while learning English at the same time.

“Everything that we do is applicable to the Big Goal, in my opinion,” Mosier said. As the school’s chancellor, Mosier is a member of the collaborative’s Educational Leadership Council.

Late last year, the University of Saint Francis, Trine University, Huntington University, Manchester University, Grace College & Seminary and Indiana Tech each won $1 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grants for programs that help advance economic development through education. All of the schools are members of the Big Goal Collaborative’s College to Career Action Team.

Northeast Indiana Works, which operates WorkOne Northeast career centers in an 11-county area and provides high school equivalent and job training assistance, for several years has sought to match the right employees with the right skills to the right employers through on-the-job training and initiatives like its Skill-Link program that tailors training curriculum to a business’ need for employees with a specific credential.

The Fort Wayne-based organization also is working with area high schools to bolster their career and technical education offerings. By the end of the year, it is expected to launch a “Made by Me” campaign that encourages students to consider careers in manufacturing.

“It’s not just about hitting the 60 percent to me, but it’s about getting the right 60 percent, too …,” Gary Gatman, vice president of strategic initiatives at Northeast Indiana Works, said of the Big Goal. “We need welders, we need machinists. We need quality technicians. We need engineering technicians. We need accountants. We need truck drivers. All of those occupations require a very specific certification or a combination of certifications.”

Career and technical education that often results in some form of professional certification has become increasingly important not just in northeast Indiana, but across the state. In 2013, Gov. Mike Pence established the Indiana Career Council and the Regional Works Councils. The state’s Center for Education and Career Innovation was formed through legislation. All are tasked with better aligning education to businesses’ needs.

“We’re going to do what we’re going to do, and we’re going to make sure that all of this work – the Big Goal Collaborative, the public workforce system, education training providers and economic development – are integrated in whatever comes to us from the state,” said Kathleen Randolph, president and CEO of Northeast Indiana Works.

Ultimately, achieving the goal of 60 percent of residents with a degree or credential by 2025 will be decided by each and every person in northeast Indiana.

“This community has what it takes to do this,” said John Sampson, president and CEO of the regional partnership, who chairs the Region 3 Works Council. “The question is whether they have the commitment, the collective will, to do this and get it done.”