Written by: Kayla Belec
On the third Thursday of each month during the school year, leaders from K-12 schools, colleges across the Region, and workforce development professionals gather at Hobart High School to tackle the tricky topic of preparing students for college and careers. This Thursday, the leaders had a lot to discuss, namely their upcoming annual Summer Institute and how to best meet the state’s new graduation requirements.
READY NWI, a regional grassroots initiative that Center of Workforce Innovations started in 2010, has evolved into a full-scale initiative with active plans to get region students ready for next-level education. Each member of the organization is committed to ensuring that high school students graduate academically, socially, and financially prepared to enter higher education without the need for remediation, and to secure degrees and certifications that directly meet the needs of Northwest Indiana employers. In building this alliance, these leaders can connect students to employers to retain talent, shape goals, track progress, and modify strategies to guarantee that, by 2025, 60% or more of the NWI labor force has a college degree or high-value post-high school credential aligned with employers’ needs.
The READY NWI Education Team comprises superintendents, principals, and counselors from 39 school districts across Northwest Indiana’s seven counties—and some of the most determined members of the organization.
“Part of the beauty of this group is the high level of trust in this room,” said Roy Vanderford, Director of Business Development for Center of Workforce Innovations. “This meeting provides a space for candid, productive discussion.”
Among those candid discussion topics were new challenges educators face, like the distraction of social media and the pervasive use of vape devices during class. Many of these challenges will be addressed during the Summer Institute in June.
“The Summer Institute is an opportunity to look at the most important trends to start the school year,” said Dr. Peggy Buffington, Superintendent of the School City of Hobart and one of the foremost leaders of the READY NWI Education Team. “The trends that we’ll be working on will be addressing choices that we prefer the kids don’t make, and making sure they take advantage of the opportunities and resources we provide for them. There will be an emphasis on the question, ‘How do we help kids make the right choices?’ And, ‘When they don’t make the right choices, how do we help them get back on track?’”
By far one of the biggest challenges educators will address at the Summer Institute is fulfilling the State’s new graduation requirements. Beginning with the class of 2023, high school students must complete their Graduation Pathway, demonstrating awareness and engagement with individual career options, a strong foundation of academic and technical skills, and employability skills. Students must fulfill all three areas to graduate.
“At the Institute, we’ll definitely be focusing on our work for college readiness and getting [students] ready for their employers,” Buffington said. “I think the biggest push will be making sure that Grad Pathways are covered, checking all three of those boxes by having students earn specified certifications, work in career and technical education clusters, and obtain early college credits.”
Vanderford and Sandra Alvarez, Senior Associate of Employer Engagement, said the monthly meetings and Summer Institute provide educators the chance to share strategies and resources, an extremely valuable opportunity for smaller schools.
“That’s one of the most important aspects of this group, the transfer of information and sharing of practices to strengthen education in the Region as a whole,” Alvarez said.
In general, the Region has struggled with slow population growth—not enough people are filling the needs of a growing work world. However, Vanderford said, according to statistics, Northwest Indiana has been steadily improving college and career readiness in students. With the trend already in place, NWI educators already have a leg up on meeting those new requirements.
“A lot of schools in the area are integrating more and more classes geared toward grad pathways and career readiness,” Vanderford said. “Some of the forerunners of the Graduation Pathway process are right in this room.”
“We’re ahead of the curve,” Alvarez agreed. “I agree with what Dr. Buffington always says, which is that we should be doing it before it’s law, because then we can be influencers toward legislation and other schools on what works and what doesn’t.”
The Center of Workforce Innovations and the Northwest Indiana Workforce Board continue to help educators build bridges to employers and internships, establishing early relationships with the future workforce and helping students ecru certifications relevant to their career paths. Leaders in college education are collaborating more than ever with employers to ensure students are receiving degrees that will lead to higher paying jobs.
“With so many emerging skill sets and new jobs cropping up, we need to make sure students are receiving the proper certification and credentials to acquire and maintain those jobs,” Vanderford said. “Better jobs require skills that need to be certified.”
Both organizations also help educators navigate Northwest Indiana’s regional economic development plan, Ignite the Region. The fourth section of the 5-goal plan, the Talent goal, relates directly to READY NWI’s mission, emphasizing the importance of education in workforce growth.
“This is one of the only gatherings in the state with so much staying power,” Vanderford said. “The process of fulfilling Graduation Pathway will be difficult, but the intent is wonderful. The educators in this room have been doing everything in their power to best prepare their students, to work together, and to build a strong future workforce.”
For more information about Center of Workforce Innovations, visit www.cwicorp.com.
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