Among other efforts, the growth council is resurrecting the adult literacy program the county discontinued four years ago, doing so after it realized that some participants in the high school equivalency program couldn’t read at the basic level needed to grasp the material.
Behind all these efforts to boost attainment and employment is a commitment to cross-sector collaboration and systems change. Many organizations had been working to address Lawrence County’s challenges, but they were operating separately, sometimes at cross purposes. And attracting business couldn’t be separated from developing the workforce. “We realize if we are going to do all those things we have to be able to talk about the quality of our workforce and the relationships we have with our current employers,” Timbrook says. “So it’s all wrapped up in one big package.”
With a substantial grant from the state of Indiana, the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council came together in 2018, convening multiple partners from education (K-12 and postsecondary), business, community groups, non-profits and social services, with a smaller group serving as a guiding team. In 2022, it received a grant from the IU Health Foundation to continue its work.
The council got off to a good start, but it also saw how participation in CivicLab’s “Building Rural Community Learning Systems” could help it sharpen its work. “We were growing and doing well, but I felt we would get out of control or lose momentum if we didn’t work together as a county and a community,” said Timbrook. “We are a little different from some of the others [in the rural cohort] because we were motoring along, but we needed help structurally, as well as help rethinking so we continue to improve.”
Facilitated by CivicLab tools and coaches, the Lawrence County team workshopped and whittled down its guiding question: “How might we work together to prepare Lawrence County community members for college, careers and civic life in a rapidly changing workforce society?” They then articulated their goals: Increase post-secondary attainment to 45 percent; increase adult education training programs, certification and employment.
Thanks to the growth council’s efforts, over 100 Lawrence County residents have completed their high school equivalency degrees, 50 have completed workforce programs, and many have found full-time jobs or taken the next steps for additional education and training. They have done so despite the handicaps posed by a county that is truly rural: More half of its residents live outside of a city or town; there is no nearby interstate and virtually no public transportation outside the county seat of Bedford; and internet service in places can be unreliable.
Yet, said the growth council in its recent funding request to IU Health: “What Lawrence County lacks in resources, it makes up for in its partnerships, neighborliness and perseverance. In short, if the project is a success in rural Lawrence County, then it can be expanded in larger communities where greater resources are available.”
At the same, the growth council hopes that with successful implementation of its initiatives, and good results, it can serve as a model to small rural communities elsewhere.
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