Batesville, Indiana is a small rural community, centrally located between Indianapolis, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Louisville, Kentucky. Its single public school corporation is Batesville Community Schools, consisting of a primary, intermediate, middle and high school for the area.
The Batesville Community Education Foundation (BCEF) seeks to fund “innovative learning opportunities” in the Batesville public school system. While initially founded to primarily fund academic grants in the classrooms, the organization has grown to include collaborative ventures in the arts, flexible learning components in student spaces, and scholarships for Batesville High School students to study abroad. With assistance from BCEF, Batesville schools continue to be ranked among the top school corporations in the state.
Batesville High School estimates that approximately 40% of high school graduates never return to the community following graduation, making workforce development a significant challenge. “As a small community, we struggle to retain all levels of talent,” says Anne Wilson, Executive Director for the Batesville Community Education Foundation. “This creates a challenge for local businesses—how do they fill jobs as local workers retire? We’re trying to encourage college bound students to consider coming back here [to Batesville].”
Anne continued: “It’s imperative that we try to either retain our top talent or ensure that students want to live here. And what better way to help them than connecting them with potential employers and with alumni who live in the region?”
Launching Bulldogs Connect
BCEF focuses on serving each and every student as they look ahead to postsecondary education. That includes first-generation college students, students with limited parental involvement, as well as anyone who might be considering vocational or trade school.
“Our region has employment available for just about every job imaginable,” Anne said. “So we don’t want to only focus on college-bound students. We have to make sure our programs serve all students.”
The concept of having a program in place to connect students with Batesville High School alumni first took shape with a job fair. Employers would visit the high school, meet with students one-on-one, and talk about their profession and their experiences working for a particular company. Some of the speakers happened to be alumni of the high school, which energized the initial meeting between student and alum. However, there was no mechanism for keeping them connected beyond that initial campus visit.
“As I was mulling this over, I saw an article in my son’s college magazine about PeopleGrove and how they were using it at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas,” Anne recalled. “I approached my board and said, ‘What if we did this for our high school?’”
BCEF’s first job fair and feedback from the workforce development roundtable in 2019 led to the integration of Excel spreadsheet modules into the BHS curriculum.
In order to have the funds to purchase PeopleGrove, BCEF had to creatively problem-solve. The foundation doesn’t qualify for many grants since it is a grant-making organization itself. In addition, the foundation’s annual budget is tiny and staff only consists of Anne on a part-time basis. However, because this new program would be directly provided by BCEF and intended to meet an educational, workforce development and economic need, the foundation was able to secure a $20,000 grant from a local community foundation to launch its community.
Another important factor: employer sponsors. Not only were corporations eager to make financial contributions, they were clamoring to proactively connect with high schoolers, making their presence a “win” on multiple fronts. And so BCEF launched their platform—named “Bulldogs Connect”— in 2020.
For comparison, the BCEF amassed support from 23 sponsors during the 2019-2020 school year—when they launched Bulldogs Connect for the 2020-2021 academic year, that number jumped to 36 sponsors. “I cannot attribute all of the increase to the Bulldogs Connect platform, as we are gaining momentum in our community through other outreach,” Anne stated. “However, I think it probably played a role in some of the businesses deciding to sponsor us.” Those businesses remain crucial for program success, both from a funding and engagement standpoint.
The login screen for Bulldogs Connect, where high school students, alumni, career mentors, BCSC faculty and staff, and BCEF sponsor businesses all connect with one another.
Bringing career development to high school students is something of a novel approach: instead of waiting until graduation or college to consider their career options, teenagers are getting exposure to a myriad of career options and education. With Bulldogs Connect, they created a space for BHS students to connect with others. “There’s someone to reach out to, for all stages of their life,” Anne said.
“Bulldogs Connect is our attempt to help every student find a mentor in their proposed field—from farmers to machinists to accountants,” said Anne. “For some students, this is their only chance to get personalized help. It’s meant for all stages of their life.”
Bulldogs Connect includes job opportunity postings for students and alumni, including internships, high school co-op, and summer positions.
Bulldogs Connect implemented PeopleGrove’s Alumni Directory in their platform to enable discovery and communication between Batesville High School alumni. Users can search for people using advanced filters.
Bulldogs Connect takes advantage of PeopleGrove’s Groups functionality to host forums for various interest groups in their community. Some of their Groups include “Batesville Area” for alumni living and working in the Batesville area, and “Essay Writing & Resume Help” for BHS students and alumni.
BCEF’s job fair returned in 2021, with more students and businesses participating, focusing primarily on graduating students.
Anne feels passionately about continuing her work with Bulldogs Connect, and she’s witnessed firsthand the power of connecting high school students with college students and career professionals who hail from Batesville. “I had one student reach out to me not long ago who said he was interested in agriculture,” she recalled. “And he asked if there was anyone on the platform he could speak to. I immediately showed him six people that were available, and he was just amazed.”
“It only takes one person to make a huge impact,” she continued. “One person to say, ‘I care about this student’ and then change their life.”