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Businesses, educators teaming up for education: Two sides join forces with Common Goal initiative, which aims to reduce Marion County's dropout rate

December 10, 2007

Business and education leaders are hanging up their boxing gloves in favor of working together to stem the local high school dropout rate.

"We've typically been at odds with the education community," said Roland Dorson, president of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. Long-standing finger pointing has had businesses issuing mandates that schools educate their students better and educators claiming they don't receive the help they need from businesses, Dorson said.

"We get beat up by business and professional groups who expect 100 percent success from all our kids," said Michael Copper, superintendent of Lawrence Township Schools.

The two sides have joined forces with Common Goal, a county-wide initiative that brings together businesses, all 11 school districts and civic groups like United Way of Central Indiana, the Center for Leadership Development, The Mind Trust and the Indianapolis Urban League.

Their goal is lofty and specific: Reduce the county's dropout rate from 7.7 percent to 5 percent in four years.

"Businesses want to be able to attract workers and one of the things that attracts workers to a community is its school system," said Libby Ciezniak, a partner with Baker & Daniels, which has adopted William McKinley School 39, a K-6 Indianapolis Public School on the near-south side. "So improving the graduation rate will not only yield higher-educated workers, but will also attract workers from other parts of the country."

Businesses will get involved in a variety of ways, including providing internships, mentors or money. The chamber will act as an intermediary, accepting plans and needs from the schools and passing them on to businesses.

About 30 businesspeople attended two meetings last month to learn how they can help. Companies represented included Eli Lilly and Co., Rolls-Royce, Panther Racing, American Airlines, Baker and Daniels LLP and R.W. Armstrong & Associates, an engineering firm housed in Union Station that employs 300.

For their part, schools are identifying the students most at risk of dropping out, hiring a liaison for some or all of the 17 high schools to coordinate the student/business relationship, and populating a database of similar programs that have worked elsewhere.

"We have long known that some kids just don't fit the traditional education model," Copper said. "Our current structure isn't built correctly, nor can we do it alone. So when the chamber stepped forward and offered to work with us, we said, 'Hallelujah.' The finger is no longer pointed at our chest."

Among local businesspeople who have signed on to help is Judy Huntley, president of Saint Clair Press, a locally based commercial printer that employs 60.

"This might help us fill our gaps during really busy times," Huntley said. "Whether or not they ultimately end up working for us or not, at least it's engaging them and giving them a chance to see a totally different profession than they've likely ever seen."

While Saint Clair Press is still deciding how it'll participate, some companies have already jumped in.

The Library Restaurant and Pub has two Decatur High School students working part time, said Mary Wei, who co-owns the restaurant on Lynhurst Avenue. One student is a hostess in the restaurant and another staffs the restaurant's hotel roomservice telephone line. That student wants to be a teacher, Wei said.

"But if she learns the business, she might want to work in the restaurant business later on," Wei said. "This is realworld experience that gives students much more than what they learn in a textbook."

"I look at this from both being a businessperson and a parent," said Tim George, vice president at R.W. Armstrong, who has two children in Washington Township schools.

"We in the business community have a sense of obligation and commitment to our young people," George said. "Education is an investment. The students are our future work force and our future leaders."

The chamber's Dorson agrees.

"The end result is, we need to have employable people come out of our schools," he said. "Even if they go on in their education, they're still eventually going to enter the work force. We need to make sure they're ready for a 21st century economy and workplace."

Those who attended the November kickoff meetings are confident the idea will spread within the business community because better-equipped and -educated workers are what everyone wants.

"We're talking about the lives of these kids and we must get involved as quickly as possible," Dorson said. "We've just got to staunch the bleeding."
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