EVANSVILLE VANDERBURGH SCHOOL CORP.
WORKS WITH LOCAL BUSINESSES TO
MAXIMIZE STUDENT OPPORTUNITIES

For the past several years, EVSC, Indiana’s third largest school district, has worked with local businesses to create the OptIN (Opportunities through Partnerships that Transform and INspire) program to ensure students graduate from high school postsecondary- and career-ready. OptIN offers opportunities beyond the traditional four-year college degree so all students can develop their potential and succeed in every stage of life. It has developed a local version of the Indiana Governor’s Work Ethic Certificate (GWEC) program that provides significant incentives for students of varying aspirations to remain engaged and focused.

To earn a GWEC, students must display six “employability skills” identified by the OptIN Advisory Council of major regional employers:

~ Persistence
~ Responsability
~ Initiative
~ Dependability
~ Ethics
~ Self-management

— the P.R.I.D.E.S. — as confirmed by teachers and other school staff.

They must also meet four “academic” targets:

~ be on track for graduation with a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0 for credits earned
~ have 98% attendance (less than four unexcused absences per year)
~ have no more than one discipline referral per year
~ do at least six hours of community service or volunteering

To help students meet these challenging standards, EVSC has an extensive toolbox of supports. School staff constantly monitor its data dashboard for GPA, attendance, and discipline referrals. The OptIN team works with school counselors and attendance staff to support students at risk of losing eligibility; the program manager meets regularly with about 50 of the students at highest risk. The most challenging requirement has been 98% attendance. In the inaugural year, the EVSC had 18.85% of seniors earn the GWEC out of those who had applied, which was higher than the state average of 18%.

While the GWEC sets a high bar, it offers significant incentives as students demonstrate success using a broader definition. Eight participating employers guarantee a job interview to GWEC students. Other benefits (which vary by employer) include mentoring opportunities, college course tuition reimbursement, signing bonuses, extra vacation, and gym memberships. GWEC students who decide to enroll in college full-time after graduation are eligible for GWEC scholarships. They may also leverage their GWEC upon completing college to take advantage of incentives offered by regional employers. All EVSC students who earn the GWEC receive a medallion and special recognition at graduation and are honored at a celebration event hosted by top employers. More information is available here.

In fall 2019, EVSC OptIN also launched the RAMP (Real-world Application Maximizing Potential) program: students are embedded in real jobs with a local manufacturing company, AmeriQual Group, LLC. Students spend half of each day at wage-earning jobs at the facility, while earning work-based learning credits toward their diploma. The other half of their day is spent in classrooms onsite as they complete high school graduation requirements and developing transferable technical, social/emotional, and problem-solving skills, with opportunities to earn nationally-recognized industry certifications. Breakfast, lunch, uniforms, personal protective equipment, banking services/financial literacy, and transportation are provided. In addition, as students complete their diploma requirements, they receive their diploma and graduate from their home high schools. 

EVSC leaders recognize that OptIN’s ultimate success will be students’ placement, retention, and positive contributions within the region’s workforce. Besides collaborating to support students and offering real-world incentives, businesses and industries serving on the Advisory Council have an agreement with the EVSC to provide data on outcomes for young people they hire as they work in close collaboration with OptIN. Already, the number of at-risk students earning their GWEC certification in the first year of implementation is a very encouraging sign, as is the fact that additional companies, beyond the initial eight top employers, want to be part of the program and collaborate with EVSC in meaningful ways that will continue to support individual students as well as the broader community for years to come.

Focus of Organization's Work

EVSC’s new approach to increasing both employability skills and postsecondary prospects was created to provide a variety of opportunities beyond the traditional 4-year postsecondary degree in order to ensure students develop to their maximum potential and are successful at every stage of life. 

This also supports new Indiana graduation requirements, which, starting with the graduates of 2023, will include Graduate Pathway options. In addition to 1) credits earned toward a high school diploma, students must also 2) learn and demonstrate employability skills and exhibit 3) postsecondary-ready competencies.

Personnel Required

Key staff that were instrumental in establishing these relationships include: 

~ The EVSC Chief Transformation Officer: project conceptualization and oversight

~ The OptIN Executive Director: project oversight – connection with businesses, meets regularly with school staff

~ Career and Technical Education Services Counselor: operationalizing career pathway options and embedded support in schools for students, families, and fellow counselors

~ The OptIN Program Manager: meets regularly with school staff, provides future-readiness support for a cohort of about 50 high school students from under-represented groups

Population Served

The EVSC is the third largest school district in the state of Indiana with an enrollment of almost 23,000 students and 3400 employees.

The district is a county-wide system comprised of urban, suburban, and rural areas. Among its 40 schools are five specialized schools, six specialized programs, and a rapidly expanding early learning program. Including alternative schools, there are eight high schools with a total of about 1,700 seniors.

Organization's Accomplishment

EVSC has built a dashboard to keep track of GWEC that provides pie charts for 3 of the 4 academic components required to obtain the GWEC: cumulative GPA (2.0+), attendance (98% or higher), and 1 or fewer discipline referrals; as well as a chart synthesizing these criteria. 

Implementation with a view toward continuous improvement necessitated constant monitoring of this chart. The OptIN staff met with school counselors and attendance staff to work with students at risk of losing GWEC eligibility because of low attendance.  The Program Manager also works with a future-ready cohort of about 50 students who are deemed particularly at risk, meeting with these students regularly to support attendance, as well as other GWEC requirements, to ensure that they are job-ready upon graduation.

Important Factors for Success

Ultimate success will be defined the placement, retention, and positive evaluations of students in cooperating businesses. Success for this first implementation year is helping students obtain the GWEC certificate and maintaining relationships with the businesses.  

The most challenging aspect for students has been the attendance requirement. The state cutoff for is an attendance rate of at least a 98% in the senior year. This translates into less than 4 total unexcused absences in the school year. EVCS completed its first year with 18.85% of seniors who had applied completing this rigorous certification, though attendance was the biggest barrier for students not earning the GWEC. Continued efforts to educate students on the importance of punctuality and dependability is an important lesson moving forward.

For this new venture, establishing and maintaining relationships with businesses is very important. EVCS currently has agreements with the eight largest businesses in our region. These businesses meet regularly as part of the OptIN Advisory Council to work toward the common goal of supporting students and the community.  They have also agreed on certain incentives for GWEC graduates. Additional businesses have asked to take part, an indicator of the first year’s success.

Requirements for Success

Creation of three new positions: the OptIN executive director, career and technical counselor, and program manager (primarily to coordinate the relationships in the schools).  

Focus on establishing and maintaining relationships with businesses.  EVSC started with members of the OptIN Advisory Council, which includes the largest employers in Vanderburgh County and meets regularly to ensure that the work maintains a common vision of supporting students and community.

Creation and use of a dashboard that tracks GWEC requirements.  Two members of the Office for Performance, Assessment and Research worked collaboratively with the OptIN team to develop the GWEC dashboard.

Overcoming Challenges

The OptIN team works to overcome challenges as part of a continuous improvement process (especially with regard to establishing new systems, processes, and infrastructure) since the district had not had a systematic focus in this area until the launch of OptIN. The team constantly identifies problems to solve and applies improvement principles to positively impact the current status. 

Lessons Learned

Things are easier in theory than in practice. 

Taking time to determine why something worked differently from the way it theoretically should have is an important and necessary, but sometimes time-consuming, practice. Doing it requires a culture of transparency and collaboration both within and beyond the OptIN team.

Most of the OptIN team is new to the central office and has had to learn to stop and focus on the user experience, get to know the stakeholders, and see the work in practice in the field to improve the systems and tools developed to help students.

Future Goals

 RAMP

While the work of OptIN continues, a more focused work-based experience has been inaugurated this fall (2019). A participating business, AmeriQual Group, LLC, is working with EVSC to provide a hybrid workplace/ classroom experience, described as follows on the EVSC website:

“The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation School Board approved a first-of-its-kind comprehensive work-based learning program in Indiana that completely embeds high school students within an Evansville-based industry. RAMP, Real-World Application; Maximizing Potential, is a program through EVSC’s OptIN, in partnership with AmeriQual, where students will work side-by-side with industry experts to acquire manufacturing skills that they can use, upon graduation, to acquire a high-wage, high-demand career.

“’The collaboration between OptIN and AmeriQual to establish RAMP is truly an innovation in education. It creates an unprecedented learning environment that will increase student hope, engagement and success,’ said EVSC Superintendent David Smith. ‘RAMP will empower students to be successful by teaching not only traditional subject matter, but also provide transferable skills such as the ability to collaborate, think critically, problem solve, communicate effectively and demonstrate ethical practices. All of which are highly sought after by employers.’” 

Students in RAMP are now working and attending class on the AmeriQual campus on Highway 41, in a hybrid classroom where teachers meet students where they are on the path to graduation. Students’ days are split: four hours of on-the-job work and four hours of classroom time. This provides them with hands-on learning and a chance to apply what they are learning in the classroom to the real world. 

“AmeriQual, like many businesses right now, is always looking for qualified employees to join our team,” said Mirsada Salihovic, vice president of human resources. “RAMP will allow us to create a pipeline of skilled workers who are already part of our family and who can be successful whether they stay at AmeriQual upon graduation or move on to something else.” 

The initial RAMP cohort includes 80 students, selected through an application process based on need. The program fulfills graduation requirements and gives students the opportunity to earn several certifications, including MSSC Certification, OSHA 10, and Forklift certification, which lead to high-wage, high-demand careers. Students are paid for their work and are eligible for attendance and productivity bonuses and promotions. 

Going forward, the EVSC hopes to expand the program within AmeriQual and also with other local companies and businesses. The EVSC will study the initial program launch to make decisions about future expansion.

Finally, for the first time in Indiana, the EVSC has rolled down work ethic certificates to middle school age students with the implementation of the Mayor’s Work Ethic Certificate. City of Evansvill Mayor Lloyd Winnecka just participated in the launch of this opportunity. Eighth graders who earn the Mayor’s Work Ethic Certificate will qualify for quarterly incentives as long as they remain eligible, and will receive a free city pool pass with their certificate at the end of the year. A new data dashboard has been created to monitor and reinforce eighth graders’ success on track to earn their MWEC throughout the year. 

Major Takeaways

Transition from an Early Warning System to Pathways to Adult Success is more feasible than it originally appeared. A student at risk of not graduating may also show skill or talent for a successful career track. In fact, EVSC is revamping efforts to target this population, particularly with the RAMP program cohort. The use of data is crucial in tracking and understanding implemented strategies. We are learning that ‘success’ can be defined and measured in a variety of ways beyond the EWS binary dependent variable of graduated/did not graduate. This brings the data outside of the K-12 environment into other realms such as tertiary education, business, and the community. The biggest takeaway is the need for methods of sharing data across sectors. This group has developed data-sharing tools (dashboards, reports, data files) and established logistical and legal structures for sharing (data agreements, MOUs).

Finally, the biggest takeaway is the importance of relationships beyond K-12.  Supporting and evaluating postsecondary success requires connections outside of  K-12, which means considering these stakeholders’ interests. What do they want? What is success to them? What do they need from us? How do students respond differently when we recognize them for strengths and talents not traditionally acknowledged in K-12 but highly valued by employers? How do students respond differently when we work together to give them significant responsibilities, employing them in an actual work environment where their contributions make a difference for others as they learn critical technical and other future-ready skills? Understanding of stakeholders’ needs and working together to achieve what is best for students moves us from EWS to PAS. The relationships with businesses at the heart of OptIN began by identifying qualities that businesses and EVSC both wanted to see in students–the PRIDES employability skills–which helped to solidify these relationships; the reciprocal nature of OptIN helps maintain them. The GWEC’s academic component assures businesses that EVSC is monitoring student attributes that translate into good job skills, while businesses offer work incentives to students who obtain the GWEC.  As EVSC continues with OptIN and RAMP, it hopes to learn more about nurturing these relationships.