Cultivating hope through education in the Hoosier hills

COLUMBUS, Ind.—The landscape of southern Indiana often comes as a surprise to those who view the Hoosier state as a vast, flat expanse of corn and soybeans. The corn and beans are here, but so too are dairy farms and forests that climb over steep hills and slope down to the Ohio River.

An hour northwest of the river is the small city of Columbus, the headquarters of a Fortune 500 corporation and the unlikely Midwestern mecca of modern architecture. Cummins Inc.’s commitment to the community is everywhere—in the churches, schools, and parks, even the bridges and bicycle racks. Meanwhile, its factories are cranking out diesel engines at a pace that demands a full complement of 8,000 local employees. “If you aren’t working in this area,” said an instructor at a local community college, “it’s because you don’t want to.”

That’s an exaggeration, of course. There are plenty of reasons why adults in the region are unemployed or underemployed. In fact, this tidy city and its pastoral countryside belie a host of them: health problems, family problems, transportation problems, and, lately, drug addiction—a scourge that has ripped through these small towns with devastating results. Education levels in southeastern Indiana are remarkably low: In tiny Switzerland and Crawford counties, only 17 percent of adults have earned associate degrees (compared with 38 percent for the state overall), and a significant number lack even a high school diploma.

Maria Hendrix of North Vernon, Indiana, shares a laugh with sons Alex (left) and Enrique. Like her sons, she recognizes the value of education beyond high school. She holds an associate degree and, at age 50, is working to earn two certifications—one as a health care assistant, the other as a medical translator.

After years of grappling with these problems piecemeal, the counties and towns of southeastern Indiana are now tackling them in concert. The lever is education—specifically, connecting industries, educational institutions and social service agencies to help adults get not just bachelor’s degrees, but associate degrees, industry certifications, and high school equivalency diplomas.

Until recently, there were few places these rural residents could go to advance their learning. Now a southeast Indiana network is working to expand postsecondary access by offering more classes through adult learning centers, aligning curriculum with business needs, and linking social services to adult education all in one place.

Known as Economic Opportunities Through Education, or EcO Attainment Network, the organization is part of a particularly longstanding collaborative.

The network’s top priority is to prepare prospective workers for well-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector, which accounts for 30 percent of the area’s economy, and in health care, which accounts for 10 percent.

A key component of the region’s efforts is a series of pathways that clearly and deliberately connect students with more than 30 industry-recognized credentials and courses of study through branches of Ivy Tech, the state’s community college system. Looking at the “map,” an individual who wants to be a welder, for instance, can see clearly where he or she can pick up what credential, what related skills and competencies will be gained, what credits will be awarded and so on.

In this corner of Indiana, many miles can lie between residents, their schools, and their workplaces. The towns connect only by way of hilly, winding roads that can ice over in the winter or flood in the spring. Along the Ohio River, a deluge or a mudslide can shut down the only two-lane highway that links Madison and Lawrenceburg, causing detours for miles. And, in a problem rare for most of America, drivers in the town of Seymour, where two freight lines intersect, are routinely held up for 15 minutes or longer waiting for trains to pass. All these problems assume that students and employees have reliable cars to begin with—which they often don’t. So with residents unable to get to education and training, education and training has been coming closer to them. With the support of local industries and a substantial grant from Lilly Endowment, the Columbus campus of Indiana University-Purdue University and Ivy Tech have expanded. And they have linked other organizations. In Seymour, 30 miles south of Columbus, the Jackson County Learning Center offers students two computer labs, a science lab, and facilities to train them in advanced manufacturing. An expanded Ivy Tech facility in Lawrenceburg, 70 miles east, has a welding shop and other facilities to prepare students for jobs in the area, 30 miles west of Cincinnati.

Between Seymour and Lawrenceburg, in Jennings County (population 27,600), just 21 percent of adults have at least an associate degree, and 15 percent lack even a high school diploma. For these people, there is the Jennings County Education Center in North Vernon.

Old school, new schooling

The center, a former elementary school, features a training space where local residents in a wide age range prepare for jobs in advanced manufacturing, technology, engineering, and health care. Here students can train to be certified as production technicians—learning about quality control, measurement, maintenance, and environmentally sound practices. Or they can become certified as teaching assistants or licensed commercial truck drivers.

North Vernon resident Maria Hendrix, 50, raised three sons in Jennings County, managing to send them all to college. She holds an associate degree and for years has worked as a teaching assistant in the local schools. But she wants more financial security. So in connection with a local hospital, she is training at the North Vernon center to become a certified health care assistant, learning how to keep medical records, take vital signs, draw blood and the like. And because she speaks fluent Spanish, she is earning an additional certification as a medical translator, hoping to help immigrants navigate the health care system.

Once certified as a medical translator, Maria Hendrix hopes to use her Spanish-language skills to help guide immigrants through the health care system.

According to Director Jan Suding, 136 students have enrolled at the Jennings County center, 30 have passed the high school equivalency diploma test, and 21 have passed an occupational certification exam. “We are becoming a mini-college,” Suding said. “Our parking lot is always full.”

Teaching adults is also a passion of Sandra Bowlus, an instructor at the Education Center of Rising Sun (population 2,146), a quaint river town about an hour east of Columbus that has seen its fortunes rise and fall, then rise again, with the arrival of riverboat gambling. A former high school teacher, Bowlus proudly displays a binder of certifications earned by Indiana adults looking for a second chance.

One of these success stories is Amanda Eldridge, 36, who is taking certificate classes in cuisine and hospitality management at the education center in conjunction with the nearby Rising Star Casino Resort. A native of Rising Sun, Eldridge started college years ago at the University of Kentucky, but soon found that the Lexington campus clashed with her rural sensibilities.

Southern Indiana native Amanda Eldridge, 36, is working to earn a certificate in cuisine and hospitality management. Her goal is to start her own food truck and serve down-home favorites like biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes. “I like to think of my customers as hungry, vulnerable men,” she jokes.

“For someone from a small town, it was such a big place,” Eldridge said. “I had to walk two miles a day.” After briefly attending Cincinnati Mortuary School (“I’m not bothered by that stuff,” she says), she received a grant and enrolled at the Rising Sun center. Working full time to manage a sandwich shop, she is now taking business classes and conducting market research to start her own food truck. Her plan is to specialize in comfort food: biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes. “I like to think of my customers as hungry, vulnerable men,” she quipped.

Former high school teacher Sandra Bowlus (right), has a new calling: educating folks like Eldridge —
adults who want to take their lives and careers in a new direction. Bowlus is an instructor at the Education Center of Rising Sun, a town on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, near Cincinnati.

As the EcO Attainment Network partners work in these small towns to create more flexible routes to college and careers, the ultimate goal for their constituents is to secure well-paying, family-sustaining jobs with good benefits. But sometimes, especially when students face personal obstacles, the immediate goal is for a job, period. And in these cases, the training and supports are far more basic.

Two programs in the historic river town of Madison, Rural Works! and The Clearinghouse, are working to provide that basic help. The programs, both projects of a local nonprofit called River Valley Resources, have helped thousands of dislocated workers overcome multiple barriers—homelessness, hunger, child care issues, lack of training—to land minimum-wage jobs, setting them up for future jobs that will pay a lot more.

Workshops reinforce fundamentals such as showing up for work on time and dressing and behaving professionally—all behaviors that employers in this area no longer take for granted. From there, participants learn how to launch a job search, how to prepare a resumé, and how to interview with employers, including how to “share their baggage” if that’s called for. They might even be prescribed a class in anger management.

One beneficiary of the program is Madison resident Matthew Stock. After a breakup with a girlfriend forced him out of their home, Rural Works! found him a room in a local boardinghouse. Within a week of graduating from the program, he had a job at a local restaurant and his own apartment. “It’s a good feeling,” Stock told a local newspaper. “I could have been homeless. But I was determined not to be.”

So far this year, 90 people have graduated from the Rural Works! program; 73 percent have found jobs, and half of the graduates have been employed longer than 90 days.

Though poverty is a huge barrier to educational advancement and gainful employment in the region, there is another, quite common obstacle that may be even higher. Well above 10 percent of Indiana’s voting-age population has a felony conviction, considerably more than the nation overall. It’s a stain that disqualifies Hoosiers from many jobs, including those that require licenses.

From jails to jobs

But businesses in southeast Indiana are so hungry for qualified workers that many are willing to overlook a felony record for promising individuals. One such firm is Grote Industries, a $70 million manufacturer of LED lighting components based in Madison. Its 500-employee plant is running at full capacity but, as with many in this region, it has trouble finding skilled workers who can reliably show up on time and pass a drug test. So it has looked to another source.

Amy Whittaker, 38, an inmate at the minimum-security Madison Correctional Facility, is serving her 17th year of a 22-year sentence for aiding and inducing murder. Her conviction stems from a drug-fueled robbery, perpetrated with others, that escalated badly. At the time of the crime, Whittaker had just dropped out of Ivy Tech, where she had been studying graphic design. Originally sentenced to 50 years and confined to a maximum-security prison, she earned an online bachelor’s degree in business management from Oakland City University.

Amy Whittaker talks with Kevin Bradley, with whom she teaches manufacturing skills to some of her fellow inmates. Whittaker, who has earned certification as a production technician through Ivy Tech Community College, serves as a supplemental instructor for prison-based courses designed by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council.

Now at Madison, Whittaker is on work release, putting in eight hours at Grote during the day and returning to the prison at night. Through Ivy Tech, she has been certified as a production technician, and next year she expects to be certified in industrial maintenance.

“It’s not easy; the classes are hard,” she said. “The machines are complicated, and technology is scary for someone who has been incarcerated for so long.” But when she is free, she’ll be guaranteed a job that will allow her to live on her own for the first time in decades.

Andrew Garrett, a human resources specialist at Grote who works with the Madison inmates, said he couldn’t be more satisfied with the arrangement, which has produced seven employees for the plant. The offenders are treated as any other worker, he says; the only difference is that the certification gives them an advantage for permanent jobs.

“They’ll hit the ground running, and at a faster pace,” he said. And because the women are under the supervision of the state corrections department, they are highly reliable—far more than typical workers, according to Garrett. “My biggest issue is attendance. It’s staggering, the biggest plague we have,” he said. “We have 23 percent turnover for the industry and 30 percent for employees in the first year. But with these ladies, we don’t have to worry.”

Konnie McCollum is director of adult education for River Valley Resources in Madison, a nonprofit that works to help dislocated workers and other disadvantaged residents rebuild their careers and lives. McCollum oversees a number of educational efforts, including a class that brings offenders from a local county jail to learn welding.

A significant contributor to workplace absenteeism in this region, and throughout rural America, is drug abuse. The opioid crisis has hit southern Indiana particularly hard. In Clark and Floyd counties alone, according to researchers at the Columbus campus of Indiana University-Purdue University, drug addiction has cost local businesses at least $3.2 billion in lost productivity, not counting the toll it takes on public services. The Scott County town of Austin (population 4,259) recently earned the tragic distinction of being the center of the largest drug-use-related HIV outbreak in recent rural American history. Its 5 percent infection rate was comparable to that of several African nations, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

In North Vernon, as part of the EcO Attainment Network, churches have been working with business leaders and local residents to create a recovery house to help troubled men transition into training programs. Decatur Plastics Products, a manufacturer of custom-injected molded parts that is expanding its operations here, has funded the purchase of a building that will house up to 12 men who are homeless, ex-offenders, or overcoming drug addiction. The residents can earn credentials at the Jennings County Education Center, after which Decatur Plastics promises them a job interview. The company has even bought mopeds for the residents so that if they are hired, they will have transportation to work.

Like most of rural America, southeastern Indiana is overwhelmingly white. But it’s also home to a fast-growing Latino population, and that adds language barriers to communities’ list of needs. Jackson County’s Seymour High School, for example, is now 25 percent Latino, with a significant population of native Guatemalans —who speak several different Mayan dialects. Translations can be difficult.

Transportation is, too. Not only is public transportation scarce here, but many immigrants don’t drive because they lack documentation. So adults must often depend on a licensed 16-year-old relative to take them around, which only causes the child to miss school. “The value of their education is there, but the need for their help at home is higher,” said Eduardo Martinez, general manager for remanufacturing at Cummins.

Breaking the language barrier

McDowell Education Center in Columbus, which works with at-risk populations, has expanded its English language classes to other communities, serving Latino families in a novel, multi-generational way. Parents who want to enroll their children in a local free pre-kindergarten program must be working or going to school. The language classes let them meet that requirement, as do the English classes and mentoring that Su Casa Columbus offers to support Latino residents as they develop skills in advanced manufacturing. And Jobs for America’s Graduates has started a bilingual program at Seymour High School.

The community’s goal in all of these efforts isn’t merely to employ more Latino residents, but to aid the advancement of those who already have jobs. Said Kathy Huffman, director of the EcO Attainment Network: “It’s all interconnected, it’s all part of a system. We have to share because our resources are so limited in southern Indiana.”

Kathy Huffman (left), director of the EcO Network, meets with project analyst Anissa Baker at the network’s headquarters in Columbus, Indiana. Huffman stresses the importance of collaboration in the network’s efforts. “It’s all interconnected,” she says. “It’s all part of a system.”

To help build an understanding of those connections, the network and other organizations recently held a poverty-simulation exercise designed to illustrate the complexities and frustrations of living on the margins. Each of the 80 or so participants assumed a role and was assigned a scenario. For instance, a single mother with three young children, one of them sick, has a full-time shift job, car trouble, and a commute that’s an hour each way. The dominoes fall: She can’t find child care, she can’t get to work, and she’s fired for poor attendance.

The exercise “showed how all these factors affected employment [and education attainment], and it increased empathy,” said Dan Davis, president of the Community Foundation of Jackson County. “It’s been surprising to learn how many people don’t even know how many low-income people there are in their communities.”

That’s a dangerous form of ignorance for any community—and one that southeast Indiana is working hard to eradicate.


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