Getting ready for the real world: New administrator’s job focuses on teaching workplace skills early

How is success defined in Brown County?

That’s the question the Brown County Schools district readiness coordinator wants to answer this year, with the help of the community.

Christy Wrightsman was hired in July. The new job came about because of a $150,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., through the Regional Opportunities Initiative Inc.’s Ready Schools Initiative. Six southwest-central Indiana schools are getting grant funding.

The opportunity was created after the Regional Opportunities Initiative released its occupational needs assessment, which showed that employers in this region struggle to find workers to fill all levels of jobs. They acknowledged that K-12 schools play a significant role in addressing these challenges.

In the 11 counties in the region, about a third of the potential workforce holds “post-secondary credentialing,” Wrightsman said. That could be any kind of certification that leads them to employment.

“I think that piece of data tells us that we still have room for improvement,” Wrightsman said.

“If we can get our students, if we can get our community, to work towards certification — I’m not talking about all four-year degrees; I’m talking about certification that will give them employment, certification, two-year degrees, four-year degrees and on — those are the types of things that are going to help that piece of data increase,” she said.

The grant will also fund institutes, workshops, curriculum development and planning in the school district to ensure that students from preschool to 12th grade are “workforce ready.” No specific group of students will be targeted for the initiative.

“All students need to be workforce ready. The plan is that everyone will be employed at some point in their lifetime,” Wrightsman said.

For this community, “workforce ready” may mean preparing a student to take their first job in a local hotel or restaurant, she said.

It also means helping students plan for the certifications or degrees they need to obtain the job they want, “that dream job or that stepping stone job, whatever their goals may be,” she said.

One of the needs employers have identified is making sure students learn “soft skills,” like work ethic, attendance, being on time, communicating, problem solving and being able to work in a team.

“What we’re hearing from industries is that they have people with hard skills (needed to perform specific jobs), and they can find people with hard skills, but they really need people who have learned those soft skills. … You start learning soft skills when you’re a preschooler,” Wrightsman said.

“That’s why you’ll find I have a passion for preschool and the need for preschool, because they start learning those skills so early.”

The goal of the initiative is to communicate with “key stakeholders” across the community to develop a plan to “obtain success,” Wrightsman said.

A community event will take place Tuesday, Sept. 12 at the high school to begin that conversation.

The idea is to eventually outline a systemic approach to support Brown County students in their career pathways.

“Not everyone is ready for college, for a four-year college, and that’s OK. That’s a message that I don’t think we’ve been sending enough,” Wrightsman said.

“I am hoping that gives some of our students hope — that if they realize, ‘I am not a four-year college-bound student,’ that that’s OK, and create your plan, because you can still be successful.”

District vision

Recently, Wrightsman and others from the district attended a Regional Pathways Institute to help them look at curriculum.

“There is a difference between experience and opportunities. Are we going to provide for our students in this district to help them become workforce ready? That’s the soft skills building in. That’s aligning curriculum so that in first grade, they have teamwork experiences,” she said.

One of the first steps the district will take under this initiative is to create a Workforce Advisory Team of people representing industry, community, teachers, administrators and other stakeholders.

“Then from there, we will create a design team. This is the on-the-ground field work team of people who will be going out to start that dialogue with everyone in the community to be able to inform what our plan is going to be,” Wrightsman said.

At the end of the first year, the district will present a proposal to the Regional Opportunities Initiative for a workforce ready plan for Brown County Schools, in hopes of receiving up to $500,000 to implement the plan.

“That’s the beauty of it. No one is telling us what we have to do. We are figuring out what we need here in Brown County and tailoring that to our community,” Wrightsman said.

“This is a key year for this community, and for me as the coordinator, to really get our voice together, our thoughts together, our ideas together on what success means so we can come up with a proposal that will be accepted and our students will be beneficiaries of that,” she added.

Brown County Schools received the grant because it’s considered to be a “ready school” district. It has several career technical education (CTE) class offerings at the high school, along with college and career readiness activities at each grade level.

One of those activities is the Career Resource Center Speakers Bureau at Brown County Junior High School, which brings in professionals in different fields to speak to students about their careers and how they got there. In late August, students made fidget spinners and heard from two engineers.

The number of Core 40 diploma and academic honor diploma graduates coming from Brown County High School, along with the number of students in the 21st Century Scholar program were also some of the factors that played into Brown County getting this grant. The 21st Century Scholars program helps low-income and foster care students prepare for and pay for college.

She said the work the district is doing with the Regional Opportunities Initiative is aligned with the corporation’s vision. It provides “world class opportunities” by working with companies like Cook Medical; “small school relationships” by having partnerships with community members; and “lifelong impact” by helping keep young people and their families here in the county.

Wrightsman left her job as principal of Van Buren Elementary to lead this initiative locally.

“I am very excited about it, because I’m a Brown County girl. I graduated from Brown County High School. I spent the majority of my career here, and my children are here. I have a really vested interest in seeing this community succeed,” she said.

“I want to see that our students, including my own children, have the opportunity to be successful right here in Brown County and in this region, doing what they choose to do.”

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.