Partnership Connects Employers to Students with Disabilities

By Aspire Economic Development + Chamber Alliance | | 8.8.22

Aspire and Earlywood Educational Services have joined forces to create a powerful partnership to build the local K-12 talent pipeline for employers. The partnership recently received a new grant to place more students into more open jobs and create more experiential learning opportunities. Earlywood is a special education cooperative that provides school districts in and around Johnson County with comprehensive programs and services for students with disabilities.

The partnership has been awarded a $551,000 grant to boost school-to-work pathways with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. The Explore, Engage and Experience grant from the Indiana Dept. of Education covers the period July 1, 2022, through September 2023. The 3E grant is designed to support schools and local partners working to strengthen, expand and create effective career pathways. Funding is allocated as part of the state’s federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III Plan which, due to an overwhelming response in strong grant applications from across the state, has been expanded to more than $57 million.

“Tackling local talent development is job number one at Aspire, and collaborating with our education partners is a critical strategy to meet our employers’ needs,” explained Aspire President and CEO Christian Maslowski. “We were honored to partner with Earlywood on this proposal and thrilled to receive state funding. Earlywood Executive Director Angela Balsley, Ed.D., and her team are driven, talented, and passionate about connecting students to employers. We believe our students with disabilities will add tremendous value for employers.”

Aspire Vice President of Economic Development Amanda Rubadue, CEcD, added, “This partnership with Earlywood and the 3E Grant will accelerate our efforts in building up Johnson County’s workforce pipeline. Earlywood and Aspire are now able to expand our high-priority strategy on a level we couldn’t have done alone. The 3E grant and partnership with Earlywood is just continuing the amazing collaborative spirit we have seen during our workforce pipeline efforts with the business community and education partners over the last several months.”

Balsley explained, “Recently, school districts have expanded graduation pathways and one of them is work-based learning. This grant was an opportunity to bring key stakeholders together to identify and address barriers to post-high school success.”

She added that Earlywood invited Aspire to be a partner in the program because it already was doing a lot of work in this area, helping businesses grow by addressing the pipeline of future employees. “Our needs crossed paths,” she noted.

Maslowski concurred. “Earlywood desired to strengthen experiential learning and career pathways for students with disabilities and Aspire had already begun an initiative to bring employers and educators together to spark more direct collaboration.” He added, “Earlywood and Aspire shared the same goal: to merge efforts between regional businesses and schools to ensure our graduates are ready to be productive and dependable employees for local employers.”

Balsley added: “Local employers will benefit by having access to help at a time when there is a worker shortage. Skill gaps can be identified, and students can become acquainted with employers. The program will identify opportunities to employ people who typically are underemployed.” She added that students and their families will benefit through opportunities to interact with employers: “This program will make the whole process more seamless.”

The grant will fund a pair of full-time positions.

The School to Work Specialist will conduct outreach and engagement with the local business community and connect local employers with local students for experiential learning and employment. Maslowski noted, “This person will conduct frequent outreach to businesses and schools to make smart matches, take successful programs already in existence and expand them countywide, and convene a regular roundtable of educators with business leaders to foster direct engagement and recruiting.”

And the Community Employment Coordinator Specialist will provide coordination to merge efforts between regional businesses and school districts with a focus on school curriculum, employability skills, and work-based pathways for students with disabilities.

The grant also will fund a new Enabled Workforce Initiative, which will train local employers on how to support students with disabilities in meaningful experiential learning opportunities and to become valued employees.

“Aspire had already begun initiatives around building our local K12 pipeline,” Maslowski recalled. “Businesses didn’t know who to contact at the various local schools. And the schools can get overwhelmed with calls. And at the basic level, we recognized businesses and schools needed one common convener and connector. Aspire stepped up to fulfill this critical role.”

Maslowski added that Aspire has been convening educators and business leaders to explore direct collaboration opportunities and inspire creative student engagement. “We are working to create a common menu of engagement options for local businesses to tap into local student talent at all our Johnson County schools. We’re also working on a handbook to create shared understanding of what the business and student needs to commit to in order to create a meaningful experiential learning opportunity.”

“Aspire’s efforts will continue to connect the entire local student population to employers, with an expanded effort to include students with disabilities who are an untapped opportunity for reliable, qualified interns and employees.”

What is Balsley most excited about tackling? “It will be getting stakeholders together to work in collaboration. The synergy we create will be amazing for Johnson County.”