Courier staff report

A Ball State University report that profiles various benchmarks and ranks Indiana’s communities based on the data has given Jefferson County a failing grade in education and only slightly better grade for health.

The Indiana Community Asset Inventory and Rankings report released Monday by BSU’s Center for Business and Economic Research is compiled as a way to educate the state’s counties on their strengths and weaknesses using the same letter grade system used by most educators in the classroom. The report uses 2018 data and compares counties to a similar study using similar data back in 2012.

The areas profiled range from arts, entertainment and recreation to government impact and economy, education and health. Jefferson County received a “C” in arts, entertainment and recreation and a “C” in government impact and economy but a “D” in health and a “F” in education.

According to Ball State’s Michael J. Hicks, data used in the report was already available to the public, but the research center compiles that information to help counties get a clearer picture of how they are doing compared to all 92 counties in Indiana. The information not only compares the various counties but also compares each county to its assessment from six years earlier.

Hicks said businesses and industries often use such data to determine whether to locate or remain in a community because education and health both impact everything from quality of life to availability of workforce and even housing values.

In fact, Hicks said, education and health often go hand-in-hand because better educated communities tend to be more healthy and vice versa.

Hicks, whose wife is from Hanover, said he knows Jefferson County well and that Madison and the surrounding area “has a lot going for it” in that it’s a beautiful community that is both a tourist destination and a desirable place to retire. However, he noted the county’s percentage of students failing to achieve passing grades on ISTEP scores, education attainment and lower graduation rates are all cautionary and that’s why Jefferson County received the failing grade in education.

The study looked at ISTEP scores in English and math, the highest degree earned by those going on to college and the percentage of students graduating from high school. Jefferson County had graded out to a “D” in 2012 but slid to an “F” in 2018. In fact, the county’s 20.8 percent score was only higher than Cass County (20.0) and Parke County (16.5).

Madison Superintendent Jeff Studebaker, who was out of the office Monday for a meeting on the drug crisis in Jefferson County, said he had not reviewed the report in much detail, but the problems identified sound like the issues Madison Consolidated Schools have been dealing with for some time.

“Everything we’re doing is focused on improving our outcomes,” Studebaker said, later noting that extends beyond just the schools and education because it takes a community approach to fix the problem.

“We’re meeting this morning on the drug crisis in the county and the increased number of arrests for meth and meth-related problems,” Studebaker said. “Those problems impact our students and drives our poverty rate and our need for a new jail.”

He said fixing one problem is often dependent on fixing another. Where the school used to hire traditional guidance counselors they now hire social workers to help students deal with other issues that impact their ability to learn.

Hicks said there is no doubt that some students attending local schools do well on the ISTEP tests and achieve at a high level both in local classrooms and in college after graduation but the averages indicate that many others probably are not.

“Anybody can go to schools in Jefferson County and get a great education, but most of the kids aren’t” based on the data, Hicks said.

Studebaker agreed, noting that Madison schools leads the state this year in the number of college credits completed by its graduating seniors, and he said the school system is also “working aggressively” to improve results for all students and expects the graduation rate to show about a 10 percent increase this year.

What does it take to turn things around? Work and innovation are a good start and while more money might help, it certainly won’t buy a fix.

“It’s really hard. Anybody who has done that will tell you that,” Hicks said on raising the grades. “You’ve sometimes got to look at some innovative stuff.”

He said the good news is that not everybody has to make “As” to see some significant impact. In fact, Jefferson County gets “Cs” for its people, arts, entertainment and recreation and government impact and economy.

“If you’re average, you’re probably doing OK,” Hicks said.

Southwestern Superintendent Jeff Bates was out of the office Monday and could not be reached for comment.