2019 Pathway Innovation Award: White River Valley Precision Machining

This spring, ROI proudly recognized organizations for innovations to improve education, economic development, and quality of place in the Indiana Uplands. This is the fifth in a series of six stories that feature winners of the Regional Innovation Awards. Their work showcases conceptual shifts, creative strategies, and commitment to action that we hope will inspire others in the region.

A pathway to future prosperity and a pipeline of top-notch talent in the Indiana Uplands

Vincennes University student and White River Valley alumnus Tyler McHenry. 

The ultimate purpose of education, many say, is to prepare students for success–not just on school report cards or standardized tests, but in their future lives and careers. At White River Valley School in Greene County, an innovative partnership with Purdue and Vincennes Universities is doing just that, by aligning student learning with the employment ecosystem of the Uplands region. Precision Machining at White River Valley High School is an advanced manufacturing pathway that gives students an in-demand skill set and a head start on their postsecondary education—all while building a pipeline of top-notch talent for Uplands industry.

In a region that boasts a strong advanced manufacturing sector with a wealth of career opportunities, White River Valley’s machining program lights a pathway to future prosperity. Principal LeAnne Kelley explained to ROI, “For every graduate, there are four jobs out there waiting for them.”

That got parents’ attention. But for students, “what hooks them in is actual hands-on activity, building things,” said Kelley. “When I go into the classroom, they love to show me their projects.” Once students start to understand what advanced manufacturing looks like, they start to see new possibilities for themselves.

Superintendent Bob Hacker explained how this small district leveraged its resources to build the program. First, he said, “We passed the general fund operating referendum in May of 2014. That opened the door for us financially.”

As in other small districts, White River’s school board was looking for sustainable programs to increase ADM or average daily membership—a measure of student attendance that factors into state funding formulas as well as academic achievement. “We were in a CTE [career and technical education] cooperative, Twin Rivers, that offered machining, but our students had to drive 50 miles to Vincennes University every day to get it,” Hacker explained. With 60% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, the necessary access to cars, gas money, and two hours of driving time a day made the program inaccessible to many. So the board asked school leaders to come back to them with a new proposal, “and working with WestGate, Purdue University and Vincennes University, we put together a program that is really innovative,” Hacker said.

Through the Purdue “Manufacturing Skills for Success” partnership, students earn three industry certifications before entering the Machining Program at the beginning of their junior year. Students then take their first year of college coursework, for credit, through a partnership with Vincennes University during their junior and senior years of high school. Upon graduation, students are prepared, with the certificates they have earned, to enter the workforce directly with organizations like Metal Technologies in Bloomfield or at Crane. They may also choose to continue their degree in advanced manufacturing–precision machining at Vincennes University – the most comprehensive precision machining technology program in Indiana with a 100% placement rate for its graduates.

Vincennes professor Jonathan Vennard led White River’s program for the first year, then Matt Birt, a graduate of the VU program himself, took over as teacher. Principal Kelley attributes the success of the program to White River’s speed of implementation and the way Birt immediately engaged the students in hands-on activities. “I’ve been in some other schools, where a bigger school did not build the program as fast. Mr. Birt has been able to do that, so kudos to him, kudos to our kids. Word of mouth from the kids who love the program is how you grow the program.”

The students completing White River’s program this year are all going on to some form of postsecondary education or the military. Senior Matt Bryant plans to attend VU for machining, and this summer, he is already working in a precision machining shop in Mount Vernon. “What I like about the program is the experience I get with it,” he said. “Seeing how somebody can take just a block of metal and turn it into a bolt, something like that—it’s pretty neat to experience that and be part of this change.”

In the future, teacher Matt Birt hopes to get a CNC machine to further the students’ learning, and Principal Kelley is looking to add internship opportunities for students. There’s a clear pathway now for the program’s success, and more importantly for its graduates’ success as well.

Former Chair of the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet Danny Lopez, White Valley High School Principal LeAnne Kelley, Students Mason Stoner and Mathew Bryant, Instructor Matthew Birt, Superintendent Dr. Bob Hacker, and ROI President and CEO Tina Peterson.

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