The Brown County Career Resource Center is there for students when they are ready to take their first steps into college or into the job market.

Until that time, Brown County Schools District Readiness Coordinator Christy Wrightsman, along with teams of community members and educators, is looking into ways to get every student on one of those paths before they leave Brown County High School.

Wrightsman’s job was just created this year. The career resource center was established with a Lilly Endowment grant in 2002, initially as a place where adults could complete their high school diplomas and further their education.

Wrightsman and resource center Director Dave Bartlett have begun working together to identify opportunities for Brown County students to step into.

They recently met with Cook Medical about the possibility of students working for Cook while getting their degrees fully funded by the company through Ivy Tech.

Wrightsman said the career resource center is key in this community conversation about workforce development because of the role it has in getting students educated beyond high school.

“It’s crucial in today’s economy to have some type of post-secondary credentialing,” she said. “I think the CRC has a lot to offer our community. People just need to pick up the phone or walk in the door and have a conversation, because they are there to help.”

Wrightsman was hired in July with a $150,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., through the Regional Opportunities Initiative Inc.’s Ready Schools Initiative. 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.

Currently, in the 11-county southwest-central Indiana region, there are more than 27,000 jobs in defense, life sciences and advanced manufacturing. Most of these companies will pay employees to complete necessary post-secondary education or certifications, Wrightsman said.

“It’s becoming more like a situation where what company doesn’t help pay for you to go to college?” she said. “They want to hire you. They’ll train you. They’re going to show you the work that needs to be done, and then pay for you to continue that credentialing or that two-year or four-year degree.”

Anything the district does through this initiative must relate back to five Regional Opportunities Initiative core principles: every student will be engaged in a relevant path to success; students will graduate high school ready to succeed in higher education and a career; meaningful and ongoing collaboration is happening among the schools, community and industry; teaching and learning is grounded in relevancy for students; and that schools recognize the significant role they play in regional prosperity.

In May, Brown County Schools will submit a proposal to the Regional Opportunities Initiative in hopes of attaining a $500,000, four-year grant. That money will help to start a specific course of action between education and industry to “prepare and connect” students’ strengths and talents with the workforce.

There are five phases that must be completed before that proposal.

Wrightsman and her team recently completed the first phase, which included sharing what the Regional Opportunities Initiative was about, the vision of the schools and core principles, and having collaborative dissensions with stakeholders in the community.

These discussions took the form of 130 interviews in October and November. “That’s not people. Those are actual interview sessions. There were more people involved, because some interviews would include two, three, six people,” Wrightsman said.

Questions focused on hopes, wishes, satisfactions and frustrations. People were separated into five profile groups including teachers, students and community members.

The “community” profile included more than 35 interviews alone. “They’re not necessarily all parents. They’re not necessarily all in business, but they represent the community,” Wrightsman said.

“I thought that was a great outpouring from the community in a short period of time that really showed their level of interest and engagement in what we’re doing.”

In the next step, Wrightsman and the design team will determine themes that emerged during those interviews. That data will then be formulated into a question.

“If, for example, students say, ‘We’d like to have more hands-on learning, more hands-on activities in the classroom,’ then we might formulate the question to be, ‘How might we provide our students with more hands-on learning opportunities?’” Wrightsman said.

This data will be shared with the community, like the Brown County Redevelopment Commission, the Area Plan Commission and the Brown County Literacy Coalition.

“I know that the data we’re receiving will be helpful to our community overall, and just to see the collaboration that is happening is, I think, a good step forward,” Wrightsman said.

The second step is expected to be completed in January.

“I think that it’s fair to say that I am seeing community themes emerge, and probably many of those are not things that would surprise anyone, but how we frame those needs and relate them to the schools is something we’re going to work on,” Wrightsman said.

Those community themes include the need for broadband internet infrastructure and affordable housing.

After themes are developed, Wrightsman and the design team will move into a phase where they try to create solutions.

The fourth phase will be the proposal to the Regional Opportunities Initiative in May. The fifth and final phase will include using the money to put the proposed solutions in motion.

“The grant itself will be to support initiatives within the schools, but those initiatives, in the end, have to relate to those core principles, which goes back to the school embracing our role in regional prosperity,” Wrightsman said.

“It’s truly community trying to meet our needs. What are our needs? What are our hopes and wishes for the future? What do we want for Brown County? … Most people are going to tell you the schooling for their children and education is high priority.”

Part of the Regional Opportunities Initiative grant also allows Wrightsman, the design team and others from the school district to communicate and collaborate with others outside of Brown County.

Recently, a local group took field trips to high schools in Wisconsin, Seymour and Leopold, Indiana, to look at manufacturing programs there.

“Those interviews are hopefully going to be telling us what we need,” she said.

The purpose of offering a manufacturing program would be to “provide relevancy to the education” and “real-life experience,” Wrightsman said.

“I think we have looked at elements within each of those companies to possibly think about what it is we could do here at Brown County that would work for us, but essentially, there’s absolutely no reason why Brown County High School couldn’t have the same, similar type program,” she said. “The possibilities are endless, especially for our community. We have the resources, the tools, the machinery and the things that we need within our high school currently.”

The high school manufacturing programs produce items like brake pads, specialty drills and marketing materials. A manufacturing program would take up about two class periods a day for students.

The group also went to a Project Lead the Way showcase in Noblesville and saw an elementary school that had initiated Project Lead the Way. Brown County Schools currently offers Project Lead the Way in the junior high and high schools.

“We’re excited to see what others have done and pick out what we can utilize here in Brown County that works for us,” Wrightsman said. “It’s truly an opportunity for us to meet the needs of Brown County and not go out to another place and try to duplicate what someone else is doing.”

Attend an Education and Workforce Advisory Team meeting

The Regional Opportunities Initiative Inc.’s Ready Schools Initiative Education and Workforce Advisory Team is a community-wide group that meets every six to eight weeks. The team advises Brown County Schools District Readiness Coordinator Christy Wrightsman and her design team.

Anyone who wishes to be added to the team’s email list can email Wrightsman at cwrightsman@browncountyschools.com.

The next meeting will be at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20 in the Goldberg Room at Brown County High School.

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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.