Dave Dresslar thinks contact between businesses and schools veers between fault-finding and frivolous.
Business leaders can slam schools in public comments for poor-performing students, but often their only tangible interaction with schools is on things like career day or one-off fundraisers.
So Dresslar, a University of Indianapolis professor, is trying to broker a new kind of conversation, one in which a community’s business and education leaders jointly develop strategies to make the local schools better as a way of boosting the economy.
And Dresslar has some resources to work with. He is using part of a $7.5 million grant from Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc. to fund the initiative, which is called Business & Education Connections.
“Schools and businesses have really not had a dialogue. Each has had a monologue,” said Dresslar, who once was a superintendent of a school system in Michigan and is now executive director of UIndy’s Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning. He added, “The relationship has been strained at worst, cordial at best. But the relationship hasn’t been a productive relationship.”
Dresslar and his staff have been playing a role in meetings in Daviess County in southwestern Indiana, Elkhart County, Lake and Porter counties near Chicago, and in the region around Fort Wayne.
He’s hoping more communities seek help from UIndy’s learning leadership center, including those in the Indianapolis area. Here, there are more business-school improvement projects under way than in most communities around the state.
Nevertheless, some business leaders engaged in those efforts still say there needs to be more awareness of the cost—economic and social—of accepting the status quo.
“What does Indianapolis look like, if we continue to graduate students at an alarming rate of 74 percent? How does that trickle down into all the other pieces of life? Does that mean less business moves to Indianapolis?” said Steve Scott, president of the construction management company Scott Hilliard Kosene in Indianapolis.
He added, “We all live in the same community and we all are going to be affected by the consequences of inaction.”
Dresslar added two contract employees this month—Dan Clark, a former lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association who recently became executive director of the Indiana Education Roundtable, and Mike Copper, who recently retired as superintendent of Lawrence Township schools. Also working on the project is Nancy Sutton, a veteran of UIndy’s learning leadership center.
Dresslar already facilitated two meetings in Elkhart County, where a coalition of business leaders called Horizon 2.0 wanted to discuss programs proven elsewhere that could help improve the county’s schools.
UIndy’s experience launching New Tech high schools, which use hands-on projects to teach kids, and early-college programs drew the business leaders’ interest.
Horizon 2.0 launched its education project a year ago in response to the crushing unemployment in Elkhart County caused by the downturn in its signature RV industry. President Obama used Elkhart twice as a backdrop to highlight the need for federal stimulus to turn around the economy.
“We’re trying to lay out possibilities for new ways of educating kids that are more effective,” said Mark Brinson, who handles economic development for the city of Goshen, which is in Elkhart County. “The business leaders are very interested in that and they’re impacted by that, because they depend on the pool of labor to run their businesses.”
Elkhart County also needs to be attractive for business executives to want to move their families there. And it needs local graduates to launch businesses in new industries to diversify the local economy.
“They are honestly looking at getting ready for the new economy,” said Bruce Stahly, superintendent of Goshen Community Schools. “Elkhart County is not going to just be an RV manufacturing company.”
A big hurdle is funding. School revenue has been pinched by state-budget cuts and property-tax caps. That’s why Goshen has identified a building to use for a New Tech high school but has no plan right now to pay the $1.5 million to $2 million needed to launch it, Stahly said.
Dresslar thinks that’s where businesses can help. Elkhart County business leaders have expressed interest in funding the New Tech school, Stahly said—if it serves the entire county.•