learning to work

A sweeping plan to boost Indy’s economy will push high schools to prepare students for open jobs

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students learning about auto repair as a part of Arsenal Technical High School's career training program.

Former Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth today announced a new $7 million effort aimed at strengthening the connection among K-12 schools, colleges, training programs and local employers.

The effort, called Ascend Indiana, will include partnerships with existing and new career and technical education programs to ensure that students learn the skills that will qualify them for jobs that companies are currently struggling to fill.

Indianapolis employers have jobs available, but some companies have great difficulty filling open positions. There are enough job seekers to fill those jobs, but most do not have the right qualifications. So jobs go unfilled and job seekers remain unemployed.

The workforce skills gap is one of the biggest problems facing the city, Kloth told a packed room of business, community, and education leaders at the Skyline Club atop the OneAmerica Tower. Those leaders included Mayor Joe Hogsett, former Mayor Greg Ballard, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and others whom Kloth hopes will pitch in to solve it.

“A lot of people think unemployment is driven by not enough jobs being created,” Kloth said. “But in the U.S. and central Indiana a lot of unemployment is driven by not having enough education or content expertise to obtain the jobs that are open.”

The Ascend initiative includes four strategies to get more kids to graduate high school, complete college or training programs, and go into jobs in Indiana. The plan is to:

  • Study employer needs to determine what skills will lead to good jobs;
  • Identify workers who could move to better jobs and fill employer needs and offer them additional training;
  • Build new talent pipelines for industries that have jobs but not enough qualified applicants; and
  • Shift public policy to make the first three strategies work more easily.

Kloth said he envisions Ascend Indiana strengthening programs at local schools, connecting students directly with job opportunities, and providing employers with a steady flow of qualified candidates as they grow and create more jobs. The intended result: a stronger economy.

“This is a very attractive place for companies to expand and grow if they can access the talent they need to be successful,” Kloth said.

Ascend is a project of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, whose board of directors includes more than a dozen top executives of companies and organizations in Indianapolis. The effort is funded by seven local foundations, but the bulk of the funding came from a $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment. (Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.) Some funding also came from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

By 2020, Kloth said, labor market research estimates nearly two-thirds of jobs will require study beyond a high school diploma. But right now only about 42 percent of adults have enough education, and the right training, to access those jobs. That translates to a gap of about 215,000 adults who could be employed in good jobs but fall short of the qualifications they need to land them.

Joyce Irwin, president and CEO of Community Health Network Foundation, gave the example of nursing as a changing field that needs its talent pipeline to evolve.

With the large Baby Boomer generation aging, the demand for health care services is growing at the same time when there is a shift toward more services delivered outside the hospital. That requires more nurses who can work more independently or as a part of integrated teams with other professionals.

So Community and other healthcare networks, she said, want to hire more nurses with bachelor’s degrees. Through Ascend Indiana, Community is crafting a program that will help its nurses work toward four-year degrees in partnership with universities, with some instruction delivered at work.

But in the long term, Irwin said she would like to see that pipeline extend back to K-12 schools, so that younger students have information about the skills they will need to complete a four-year nursing degree.

“At the beginning of the pipeline we can help them understand where nursing is going,” she said. “If you catch people younger you can get them to go toward the higher level skills.”

men of color

New York state charges forward with its ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative

When young men of color enter high school, they often do so with the deck stacked against them. That’s what a panel of young men from Ithaca and Albany told a room of education policy officials and lawmakers on Friday.

“There’s a mold for us that they want us to fit in,” one student said.

“No one realizes how much potential, not only white students have, but every student has,” another added.

New York state’s top education leaders convened in Albany Friday to tackle the problem posed by these young men: How can the state raise educational achievement for boys and young men of color?

Only about 68 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate on time, while 88 percent of their white counterparts do, according to state graduation rates released last week. Male students fare worse than female students, with a 76 percent graduation rate compared to 83 percent for female students.

The conference is part of the state’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, modeled on President Barack Obama’s national program geared toward boosting opportunities for young men of color. Policymakers spearheading New York’s initiative scored a big victory last year, securing $20 million from the legislature and officially becoming the first state to accept Obama’s challenge.

Though the political winds in Washington have changed since then, Friday’s conference sent a clear message that, if the state’s top education officials have anything to do with it, this strand of Obama’s legacy will live on in New York.

Attendees included State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and assorted lawmakers and superintendents.

“For me, this is the end of the beginning,” said Stanley Hansen, the State Education Department assistant commissioner who runs the program. “We will start today: Staff will be contacting your schools and communities, and we will be out there in force.”

So far, the state has split the $20 million into grants that encourage the recruitment of a diverse pool of high-quality teachers, along with family and community engagement, and programs focused on college and career success. The department is pushing for another $20 million in this year’s budget.

But Regent Lester Young, who is leading the effort on New York’s education policymaking board, reminded the crowd that it will take more than funding to radically change outcomes for young men of color.

“This is not about $20 million because this problem, this challenge, is not going to be solved with $20 million,” Young said. “This will be solved when we decide to change the narrative.”

turnaround time

This Harlem school has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. Meet the principal working to turn it around.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Geralda Valcin, principal at Harlem's Coalition School for Social Change

Just two months after becoming principal, Geralda Valcin’s plan to reduce her school’s dropout rate landed her in a parking lot at Rikers Island.

One of her students at the Coalition School for Social Change had been incarcerated, so she made the trip — with a care package of clean t-shirts and socks in tow — to convince the jail’s staff to enroll him in a U.S. history class, one of the only courses he needed to earn a diploma.

“The principal at Rikers was like, ‘You really came up here to do this?’” Valcin recalls. “It fell on deaf ears.”

The jail wouldn’t let her visit the student or place him in the class Valcin requested, but that was only part of the reason for the trip. “He totally appreciated us for it,” she said. After his release about six months later, the senior returned to school and is on track to graduate this year.

Valcin chalks this up as a success story, but acknowledges she has many other students who need that type of support. At her Harlem school, more than a quarter of the ninth-graders who started in 2012 dropped out at some point during their high school careers, meaning they left without enrolling in another school. Only a handful of other traditional high schools in New York City had higher dropout rates, according to new statistics.

Valcin, who became principal last March after more than five years as assistant principal at Bronx High School for Law and Community Service, says she’s ready for the challenge.

She has spent much of the past year reinforcing systems to identify students early who are at risk of dropping out, and working with her school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. And the stakes are high: Coalition is one of 86 schools in the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performers, which offers schools extra social services and academic support, but which must show signs of progress in return.

Though her previous school wasn’t in the program, it also struggled with low graduation rates. It was “pretty much in the same predicament,” she said. That school boosted graduation rates by almost 20 points during her tenure, eventually besting the current citywide average of 72 percent.

Though graduation rates at her new school have started to climb, Valcin isn’t sanguine about the work ahead of her. For one thing, her students — roughly 92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — often arrive far behind grade-level. Three-quarters come from poor families; 35 percent have disabilities.

Valcin isn’t willing to speculate about why Coalition’s dropout rate is higher than other schools with similarly high-need populations, and is careful not to assign blame. “The numbers spoke for themselves,” she said. “Coalition hasn’t graduated 50 percent of its students in six years or more. A lot of the work probably wasn’t happening.”

Soon after arriving, she launched a “Saturday academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for the state’s exit exams, and began carefully watching students who had attendance or disciplinary problems early on. “If that pattern begins, you’re almost doomed,” Valcin said.

That’s why, before students start classes in the fall, school staff review their middle school records and conduct home visits, so they can talk about previous problems before they crop up again.

“From the beginning of the year, we have highlighted a cohort of kids that without significant additional support wouldn’t cross the finish line,” said Derek Anello, a program director at Partnership with Children, the school’s nonprofit community partner. “We’re starting with ninth-graders before they’re even in the building.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Coalition School for Social Change

The school zooms in on students who don’t earn passing grades during the first few months of school, and offers extra academic help. (Valcin keeps a color-coded spreadsheet on her desk that tracks student progress toward graduation.)

If a student is showing up late — or not at all — they’ll likely get a knock on their door, sometimes from Valcin herself, or from a staff member at Partnership with Children. And if they’re routinely showing up late to class due to an extra-long commute, school officials might help the family find a school that’s closer to home.

City officials are expecting those efforts to produce significant results this year. Under the benchmarks assigned to the school through the Renewal program, its graduation rate should increase to 63 percent this school year, up from 46 percent. The education department considers graduation rates in decisions about whether to close or merge schools in the program.

Partnership with Children’s Anello is optimistic about meeting that goal partly because of Valcin’s embrace of his community organization. “Not every principal allows the [nonprofit partner] to be their right hand,” he added. “That’s not consistent across Renewal schools.”

But the school faces strong headwinds that make it hard to attract students who are more likely to graduate, including intense academic segregation. Among last year’s ninth-graders, for instance, fewer than five students had passed either their eighth-grade math or reading tests.

The school’s inclusion in the Renewal program, historically low graduation rate, and sagging enrollment have also signaled to prospective families that the school doesn’t have a strong track record.

In fact, Valcin has been reluctant to aggressively market the school. “I don’t want to go on the street and say, ‘Hey send your kids to this school’ given the condition we’re in currently.”

But she’s banking on this year’s graduation rate changing that calculation.

“The day after graduation, I’ll be on the corners passing out fliers,” she said.