HEA 10th: Our Adult Pathways director got in on the ground floor

In this video still, HEA Adult Pathways Director Barb Stith listens as Bio Greer, a graduate of the program, talks about his educational journey at the HEA Adult Pathways office in Elkhart, Ind.

Adult education has been part of HEA’s lifespan approach to learning from the very beginning in 2012, and in that decade, those programs have grown to reach thousands of adult learners across the area, teaching skills such as literacy and technical proficiencies in both English and Spanish.

One constant through all that time and all those changes has been our Director of Adult Pathways, Barb Stith, who celebrated her 10th anniversary with the program on Feb. 1. She would be the first to tell you: She’s not the story, it’s the programs and the people who have changed their lives through learning who are the story. I won’t argue with her, but before we get to that, I think telling at least a little of her story will help set the stage.

Before early 2013, Barb was teaching part-time at four different local colleges. Although she loves teaching, it was not consistent work, and it wasn’t dependable income. She was looking for something more stable that, ideally, could still allow her to teach and still be involved with adults.

She saw a listing for an adult education program director for an Elkhart-based organization called Learning Generation Initiative, or LGI. She applied, interviewed with director Kathy Royer two days later, and was offered the job later that day. LGI had been established on the basis of a Lilly Endowment grant a few years earlier to advance adult education opportunities in Elkhart County, and had successfully grown beyond that initial investment by offering programming underwritten by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. Barb didn’t know when she got the job that soon, she would have an opportunity to grow her own skills.

The HEA merger

Kathy had been working with Brian Wiebe and Aliah Carolan-Silva, the first two employees at the newly formed Horizon Education Alliance, on a merger between the two organizations for a few months at the time she hired Barb. As the merger came closer to completion, it was decided that Kathy would join HEA leadership.

“Kathy was getting more involved in HEA that spring (2013), and she talked with me about ‘would you be interested in going into a director position, something more full time?’” Barb said. “And I told her that I would be interested, so I started going with her to some of the regional meetings that we have, and it was just its own world that I knew nothing about.”

Barb didn’t have experience working with state agencies at the director level, but she was eager to learn. Although that educational process wasn’t without its difficulties, she stayed the course, with some guidance and support from her new boss.

“It was all brand new to me and very frustrating at times, but I can remember Kathy saying to me, ‘you’ll get it, you’ll see that it will all even itself out.’ And at about year eight, I started to see she was right,” Barb said with a laugh.

The new way forward

During the Great Recession, the administration of adult education standards in Indiana was transferred from the Department of Education to the Department of Workforce Development. The aim of this move was to evaluate how the adult education system could best serve those adult learners trying to either advance or change their careers as well as consulting with employers to determine the greatest areas of need in the workforce.

In 2011, Kathy connected with the state to become the first adult education program not based in a school system. The Department of Workforce Development announced changes to the program then known as GED – General Educational Development – replacing it with a different standard called HSE, or High School Equivalency test. The HSE was intended not just to provide adults with a path to a high school diploma, but as a first step toward career advancement with the guidance of a holistic adult education program: the same kind of program, incidentally, that the former LGI had been building here in Elkhart County.

“Education is a big part of what we do, but it’s not the only part, and that’s what has evolved,” Barb said. “We are now involved in industry trainings. With the state sponsorship, we had to meet metrics on educational gains, but also work with businesses to train either incumbent workers or new workers to prepare them for a career pathway.”

This new focus on workforce development also opened up new grant opportunities over the next several years that helped establish a variety of industry recognized certification programs through HEA’s adult education program. These programs are facilitated in partnership with higher education entities such as Ivy Tech and Goshen College, as well as local employers. 

Two such programs, the CPT (Certified Production Technician) and CLT (Certified Logistics Technician) have been very popular with local adult learners. Elkhart County is now one of the top counties in the state in issuing those certificates, with HEA-organized programs leading the way.

Reaching non-native speakers

As the HEA Adult Pathways team worked on expanding its capacity to provide tutoring, coaching, and professional certifications, an increasing number of Elkhart County residents from Latin American countries started to look not just for opportunities to learn English, but also for ways to learn new skills in their native language even as they worked toward fluency in English.

“English as a New Language became a larger part of our offerings,” Barb said. “But because so many of our working population are Spanish speakers, we delved more into that world four to five years ago, and that has just really been a life-changer.”

A partnership with Goshen College has allowed the English as a New Language program to flourish in Elkhart County, growing from an initial five classrooms of enrolled learners to 13 classrooms today – 263 students enrolled as of April 2023 – and a waiting list besides. Elkhart County has the second-highest per capita population of non-English speakers in the state, behind only Marion County (Indianapolis).

As Barb started to see the overwhelming demand for educational services for Spanish-speakers, she made it her mission to ensure every program offered at HEA’s Adult Pathways would also eventually be offered in Spanish. So far, her team has succeeded in bringing a Spanish-language HSE test to Elkhart County as well as a Spanish-language CPT course. And if an adult learner speaks another language entirely, the team makes the effort to find the services they need.

“I have become friends with a man from Indianapolis. He and his wife, who are Afghani, found out that we have an online program here and he wanted to know if we could help him,” Barb said. “We got him hooked up with a program in Indy and he is loving it. He was trained in Afghanistan as a computer analyst, and his wife is a computer scientist.”

What’s next

Talk to Barb for even a short while about adult education and you’ll hear her passion for this work and her pride about the people her small-but-mighty team of volunteer tutors and paid staff have coached to significant steps forward in their careers and lives. The people and their achievements are never far from her mind, whether it’s the more than 200 incarcerated people who have earned technical certifications through a partnership with the county jail or the big-hearted man from Venezuela who earned his HSE and went on to become a teacher. 

As she looks to the future, she knows the importance of these personal connections – with adult learners as well as partners in education, government, and business – will only grow. She says that working well with adult learners requires a person to be part teacher, part guidance counselor, and part therapist, and the State of Indiana is starting to recognize that as well.

“We’re definitely working with the individual, certainly businesses too, but getting them plugged in to opportunities is already a big part of what we do,” Barb said. “Adult Education programs in this state are already required to do certifications, to have a career counselor, and so forth, so you can start to see things lining up that way. And it’s working.”

In this way and so many others, the Adult Pathways program will continue to adapt to the changing needs of the community and the workforce. Barb’s passion and dedication to adult education has set a high standard, and her team of staff and volunteers will undoubtedly continue to transform lives through learning every day. With a commitment to meeting the needs of every adult learner who seeks out their services, Adult Pathways is poised to make an even greater impact in Elkhart County and beyond in the years to come.

Barb’s story is one of many from the first 10 years of Horizon Education Alliance in Elkhart County. Watch our 10th Anniversary celebration video, featuring Barb and Adult Pathways HSE graduate Bio Greer, below.

By Andrew Hershberger
Director of Communications and Marketing, HEA

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