For The Tribune

A regional education and employment initiative has been awarded a grant of about $1.8 million that it will use for more than a dozen projects in an effort to increase educational attainment, provide career opportunities and meet employers’ needs.

The EcO Network of Southeast Indiana received the grant through the Skill UP Indiana program, which made available about $11 million total in grants.

Gov. Mike Pence announced 13 grant recipients Wednesday afternoon at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis.

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Ten counties, including Jackson, Jennings and Bartholomew, are served by the EcO Network. It started in 2007 as an initiative of the Columbus-based Community Education Coalition — known then as Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015 (EcO15) — to create economic opportunity through education.

The network includes education, business and community stakeholders in an effort to create a regional system of lifelong learning and move people up at least one level in their education, training or job placement.

The Community Education Coalition will act as the fiscal agent for the $1,823,111 grant.

Skill UP Indiana, launched in August, is an Indiana Department of Workforce Development grant program that funds community partnerships to develop training and education programs that align with employer needs, according to the workforce development website. It was created with the knowledge that an estimated 1 million jobs will have to be filled in the state by 2025.

Stephanie Weber, the EcO regional director, said the grant will allow the network to ramp up its efforts.

“This is a fantastic opportunity. I am thrilled with the grant. We already had a lot of partners working together, but there’s excitement to have more projects funded,” the Seymour native said.

The money will support projects in three focused areas: advanced manufacturing, health care and educational attainment. Manufacturing and health care represent 50 percent of the jobs in the 10-county region, Weber said.

“We will be able to impact thousands of students and adults, and improve lives by gaining education and attaining well-paying jobs,” said Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition.

Oren said the goal of the EcO Network is to increase the post-secondary attainment rate in its 10-county region from 29.4 percent to 60 percent in programs leading to jobs that pay well.

“The recruitment, enrollment and successful completion of students into and through targeted manufacturing, health care and attainment programs are vitally important to our region’s current and future economy. Simply put, continuing and expanding the EcO initiatives to strengthen the regional learning system will encourage advanced manufacturing companies to view our region as the place to conduct their enterprise,” John Burnett, CEO of the Community Education Coalition, said in a news release.

Some of EcO Network of Southeast Indiana’s projects have direct ties to Jackson, Jennings and Bartholomew counties, including:

Latino postsecondary educational achievement: A pilot program will hire college and career readiness coaches in Jackson and Bartholomew counties that will work within the high schools to support students, and will organize and coordinate workshops from middle school through college for Latino students. The reason is because Latino students have a higher dropout rate than their peers in the region, and are less likely to seek post-secondary education.

A work-and-learn program: It will connect local companies with high schools to facilitate workforce readiness. Students will have six-week internships in advanced manufacturing or logistics with a participating manufacturer, and earn at least $9 per hour. Valeo in Seymour, Lowe’s Distribution Center in North Vernon, and Faurecia and Caltherm, in Columbus are among about 20 companies so far that have applied to participate. More than 50 high school students will participate in the program this summer and next summer, Weber said.

Expansion of project-based learning: A program at Madison High School features student-employees who make products and materials for local companies, and also work part-time at the companies. Seymour High School is one of the schools that wants to replicate the program. Seymour school officials have been working with local partners to create a vocational opportunity for high school students through a student-run manufacturing operation known as Owl Manufacturing. It is a project that will benefit students, the community and local employers looking to hire skilled and knowledgeable workers with experience in manufacturing, said Superintendent Rob Hooker.

Replicating a teacher externship program throughout the region: The Bartholomew County Manufacturing Education Partnership has focused on better understanding industry needs and gaps. As a result, C4 teachers were allowed to work during the summer on site at manufacturing locations, and later shared that experience in the classroom.

Adding a bachelor’s in nursing accelerated program at IUPUC: The program at the Columbus school is designed so that adults with non-nursing degrees can earn a bachelor’s in nursing within 18 months and fill a workforce need.

Expanding regional dropout prevention efforts: The iGrad and Jobs for America’s Graduates programs have achieved success and support from private sector employers and educators who view them as tools for improving attainment rates. Seymour High School has had a Jobs for America’s Graduates five years, and the program has won 13 awards for its success in helping students transition into jobs, the military or college after high school graduation. Brownstown Central Community School Corp. officials have been exploring the idea of an iGrad program, which pairs graduation coaches and volunteer mentors and tutors with students to help them navigate any barriers they experience as they advance through high school. The Jackson County Education Coalition also is looking at funding iGrad programs at some of the county’s high schools.

The expectation from the state is that the projects will become self-sustaining, Oren said.

In the grant proposal submitted to the state, the EcO Network of Southeast Indiana was asked to identify initiatives and strategies that were already working but could be expanded, new ones it wanted to start, and details about expected impact and budgets, Oren said. The grant amount received was a little less than asked for in the proposal, she added.

Weber said about half the projects were already being discussed or were in the works when the state announced the grant opportunity.

The grant required a 25 percent local match, but Weber said that was easily exceeded. Local partners kicked in $726,225 in cash and in-kind contributions.

Each of the project leaders will pay for the associated costs, then will be reimbursed by the state, Oren said. The grant covers 18 months, she added.

“The Community Foundation of Jackson County is excited to learn of this good news for our community and our region,” said Dan Davis, the foundation’s president and CEO. “Education remains an important part of our community work, and the foundation has been an eager participant in this Skill UP Indiana application process. We remain committed to helping carry out the important work that will take place as a result of this program.”

The projects should provide opportunities for funders in Jackson County to participate financially in the delivery of the programs, Davis added. He pointed to the foundation’s Community Impact Grants as one possible source for local matching dollars.

About Skill UP

A program of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. Announced in August.

Purpose is to leverage partnerships and encourage regional collaboration for implementation of initiatives leading to increased skill attainment and career exposure opportunities for youth and adult students.

Reason is to help fill an estimated 1 million jobs in the Hoosier workforce by 2025.

About $11 million in funding made available for grants.

About Community Education Coalition, EcO

Community Education Coalition

Formed in 1997 by the Columbus Economic Development Board, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, community stakeholders and major businesses in collaboration with educators.

Focused on aligning and integrating the community learning system, economic development and quality of life.

Examples of the coalition’s work:

  • Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence: Opened in 2010, it’s a $15 million state-of-the-art, shared facility in Columbus near the airport that allows education, workforce and business development programs to increase the productivity and competitiveness of the manufacturing sector in southeast Indiana.
  • iGrad program: Started with the 2012-13 school year, and uses graduation coaches to mentor at-risk students and help them get on track to graduate high school.

Economic Opportunities through Education (EcO)

Started in 2007 as an initiative of the Community Education Coalition. Known then as Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015 (EcO15).

Serves 10 counties (Bartholomew, Dearborn, Decatur, Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Jennings, Ohio, Ripley and Switzerland).

Creates a regional system of life-long learning by connecting the residents within rural southeast Indiana to better economic opportunities through education. The goal is to get each person to move up one level of attainment in their education, training or job within the region’s three strongest economic clusters (advanced manufacturing, health care and hospitality/tourism).

— Source: educationcoalition.com

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.