Jobs alone can't solve the enrollment problem at New Castle schools.
A Ball State University economist said attracting a factory may not entice families to move here. They won't bring their children to a community if they don't think they'll get a good education.
At the same time, economic development officials can't attract new companies if a school district's performance is poor. Businesses won't move to an area with a low graduation rate and few people going to college, they said.
For years, research has shown a major link between education and economic development, BSU economist Michael Hicks said. He's seen studies proving that if communities want more people and jobs, the best thing to do is improve their schools.
Roy Budd, executive director of regional economic development group Energize-ECI, can't get companies to move to cities or towns with low graduation rates. Communities like Yorktown are growing because they have high-performing schools, he said.
But the connection is still slow to catch on in many communities, and while there's some communication between schools and county officials, Hicks says there isn't enough.
The two sides need to be in frequent contact to understand each other's needs, he said.
"Every economic discussion ought to involve educators," Hicks said.
The school-development connection has come to the forefront as New Castle schools face their biggest enrollment drop in years. On Friday, Supt. Steve Fisher reported a drop of 172 students, and though he said the final number could be slightly lower, it's not enough to make a dramatic difference.
The majority of students who left the district moved out of town as their parents searched for work, Fisher said.
Blue River Valley and South Henry schools cited the same reasons for their enrollment drops. Without Metaldyne and other large employers, families are fleeing Henry County and leaving the rural districts. Among the three school districts, about 255 fewer students are attending school here.
Fisher recognizes that schools have the power to help turn a city into a thriving community. He wants New Castle schools to be so successful that families flock from Muncie, Anderson and Indianapolis to live here. He wants outstanding statistics like test scores and graduation rates to convince businesses that the city has a ready and trained workforce.
"I'm not a politician," Fisher said. "I can't get out and draw people to the community, but I can draw them to our schools. I think we have a great school system."
Companies research communities to determine if they have enough skilled, educated people to fill the jobs they would bring. A major way they do that is by looking at the schools, Grewe said.
Budd can't sell businesses on areas with low-performing schools. Businesses look at the graduation rates for high schools and colleges, and if it's not up to par, they don't even consider that community.
"If the high school graduation rates in that county are low, the conversation stops," Budd said. "No matter if it's a great location or they get tax abatement, that does not negate a poor graduation rate."
Schools can draw in families
Schools with high marks from the state attract new residents even if there isn't a major business around. Several Indianapolis area school districts are good examples of this, including Carmel Clay and Hamilton Southeastern, Hicks said. They draw in families who work in the city because more than 90 percent of their students pass ISTEP and about 90 percent graduate from high school.
Schools don't have to be minutes away from Indianapolis to have the same draw, Budd said. Communities like Yorktown attract families and businesses because of high and improving test scores and a 95 percent graduation rate.
Those statistics helped him to entice Bravini Wind, an Italian wind turbine gearbox manufacturer, to bring 450 jobs to the growing community. And last week, Yorktown reported an increase in enrollment.
Communities can't depend on jobs coming to town to draw in more people, Hicks said. Gone are the days when a job determines where a person lives. People don't feel like they have to live where they work and are willing to commute as much as an hour.
Instead, they pick a place to live based on where their children will get the best education, Hicks said. Families can easily research a school's performance online. And if they don't like what they see, they probably won't move there.
"For household decisions, the single biggest factor of where you live is the quality of the school," he said.
New Castle's problem is that even though the district is improving, some of its statistics are still lower than ideal, Hicks said. The state's instrument that measures a district's achievement and growth ranks New Castle as low-growth and low-achieving in English, and the district earned a C letter grade based on test scores. And though the graduation rate improved to about 75 percent, it's not good enough for some employers, Hicks said.
Fisher said his district has made big improvements, but it's not where it needs to be. The schools must work to be the best so that parents want to send their children there.
In the meantime, Budd and Grewe agree that part of the solution is more communication with the schools. Fisher has a seat on the EDC board, but Grewe thinks that needs to be taken a step further.
Budd suggested conducting periodic meetings between economic development and education officials, where they can discuss how they can work together and what they need. And educators need to hear about the challenges officials face in attracting businesses.
"The best place to start when you want to attract business is the school system," he said. "All kinds of data would support that statement."