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Community education keeping up with business: Lawrence Township, other districts making classes more convenient

January 14, 2008

Thirteen years ago, long before the current commotion over escalating property taxes in Marion County, a local public school superintendent became embroiled in a similar uproar.

Residents of Lawrence Township in 1994 challenged former district leader Bernard McKenzie to rein in what they perceived as excessive spending of taxpayer funds.

He responded by creating the Lawrence Township Community Education Program as a testament to the citizens and their support. Today, it has grown to serve about 6,000 people annually and is considered one of the state's leading community-based adult education programs. Administrative functions are housed in the aptly named McKenzie Career Center on 75th Street near Shadeland Avenue.

The number of available classes has nearly doubled, from 75 to 145, and online courses launched about three years ago now number 300, making it the largest provider in the area. Perhaps most appealing to taxpayers is that the program operates on a $325,000 annual budget generated entirely by course fees. Not a bad investment, eh?

But administrators aren't about to sit on their laurels. This month begins an ambitious effort to improve connections with the local business community by alerting them to the online courses, and later to actually begin offering courses at the workplace. Cheryl McLaughlin, a former teacher who served the Lawrence Township School Board for 12 years, was hired part time in October to lead the new initiative.

"We've been [visiting companies] here and there, but we haven't really been pushing it," said Kim Olive, Lawrence Township's director of community education. "We really want the businesses to know we're here to help them develop and grow."

Letters announcing the expanded services have been sent to members of the Greater Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Members of the Indianapolis and Fishers chambers of commerce will be targeted next.

Kris Butler, president of the Lawrence chamber, thinks the course offerings-whether online or on site-will generate interest in particular from small businesses, which make up much of her membership.

"Many of the businesses have training budgets, but because they're so small, it's hard to release employees to do coursework, in spite of the fact it could enhance their jobs," she said.

On site courses convenient

Taking courses to the employer is a deviation for a program that typically offers them at various Lawrence Township sites. Classes range from the recreational to the professional-belly dancing and computer skills are just a few examples.

It is the only program offering mandarin Chinese and Japanese, as well as the more typical Spanish, French and Italian courses.

Classes convene in the spring, fall and winter and range in cost from as little as $25 to as much as $1,000. Twelve hundred students are enrolled in winter classes that begin Jan. 22. The more expensive offerings are programs in which participants can earn a certificate in careers ranging from accounting and bookkeeping to medical coding, billing and transcribing.

Lawrence Township's desire to bring its classes to the workplace underscores the progression of community-education programs to help meet the demands of employers seeking a more skilled work force.

To be clear, community education and adult education programs are two different things. Community courses are available at a cost, while there is no charge for adult classes.

Government grants support adult education programs designed to help high school dropouts earn their general educational development certificate, or GED. Community courses, conversely, often are continuing education classes meant to help workers advance their careers or learn a new skill in the event of a layoff.

"So many companies have downsized, they come to us to improve their skills," said Brenda Owen, director of Warren Township's Program of Adult & Community Education. "The ultimate goal is to get that person on their feet to provide a living for their family."

Combined, Warren Township's adult and community education program last year served roughly 3,500 people, a much smaller number than Lawrence Township's lone community education offering. Yet, Warren has delivered workplace-training programs since 1995.

In 2006, 208 employees enrolled in the on-site courses, including those at Caterpillar Logistics Inc. in Lebanon. Last year, the program visited locally based Clarian Health and St. Francis Hospital and Health Centers, and is meeting expectations, Owen said.

"It seems to be easier if we go to them on site," she said. "That way, we can customize their curriculum, so we can teach them something they don't already know."

Ivy Tech partnership

Washington Township is the other local school district offering both a community and adult education program. Community education courses number roughly 65, excluding online offerings.

But what the township is concentrating on these days involves aspects of adult education. With support from the Indiana Department of Education's Division of Adult Education, it has entered into a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College.

The program, which should be operating by the end of January, will give students who have completed their GED through Washington Township's adult education program the opportunity to make the transition straight to Ivy Tech. The object is to further their education beyond a high school diploma. The Indianapolis Public Schools adult education program is participating as well, said Linda Warner, director of the state's Division of Adult Education.

"We've been talking through a lot of ideas and decided to initiate this pilot program," she said. "It's certainly an area we really want to emphasize, and to increase the number of adults who go on to post-secondary education."

Todd DeLay, Washington Township's adult education supervisor, assumed leadership in the fall after replacing longtime Director Marcia Graft. He and fellow supervisors concur that the need is great enough to warrant multiple community and adult education programs.

"We all offer something that is a little unique," he said. "I definitely look at us as a partnership rather than as competitors."
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