February 27, 2023

New Indy Achieves executive director wants high school students to feel comfortable with college

Esther Woodson is the new executive director of Indy Achieves. - Indy Achieves

Esther Woodson is the new executive director of Indy Achieves.

Indy Achieves

The organization Indy Achieves works to close the city’s skills and wage gap by increasing access to post-secondary education. That includes counseling that connects college-bound students with financial aid programs, like the 21st Century Scholars initiative and the Frank O’Bannon grant. Those are programs that pay up to 100 percent of a student’s tuition at some Indiana colleges.

Indy Achieves began in 2019, started by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett. It’s part of EmployIndy, Marion County’s Workforce Development Board. Grants and programs are available for Marion County residents attending Ivy Tech or IUPUI.

This month, the administration announced Indy Achieves’s new Executive Director, Esther Woodson.

WFYI’s Sydney Dauphinais spoke with Woodson about her goals for the future of the organization.

Sydney Dauphinais: Can you tell us about the skills gap in Indianapolis and what areas need the most attention?

Esther Woodson: There's a gap within all jobs across Marion County. And so our job at Indy Achieves that we want to do is close that gap with those graduating out of high school and then adults, period, to obtain a bachelor's degree to be successful citizens in Indianapolis. Because we know, too, Indianapolis is one of those cities where almost weekly you see companies doing groundbreakings, and they're going to need individuals to come work for them in those careers and jobs.

Dauphinais: What kind of work do you do with K-12 students?

Woodson: That's the fun part with Indy Achieves. I have the pleasure of working with Marion County middle schools for that 21st Century Scholar completion, as well as that high school side with FAFSA completion, scholar track completion for 21st Century Scholars, and as well as navigating those high school seniors that are graduating, that are going on to our partner institutions of Ivy Tech, or IUPUI, who are 21st Century Scholars, Frank O'Bannon, or receiving any other type of state aid to join the Indy Achieves Promise program.

Dauphinais: Can you talk a little bit more about the partnerships?

Woodson: We have both our Promise Completion program, which are majority graduating high school seniors who have turned the tassel – again, they have completed that FAFSA, they receive any type of state aid. And so if they meet those requirements – and also being a Marion County resident – they meet those requirements, they are paired with one of our student success coaches. Right now, we have three student success coaches on the IUPUI campus, and two on the campus of Ivy Tech.

Now, while they're not academic advisors, they're helping these students navigate this new world called college. A lot of the students that we serve, especially those directly out of high school, are first generation college students. And so they don't know financial aid, bursar, and the different terminologies and things for college. And so you can almost look at our student success coaches as that primary care physician, who then tells the students where to go for those specialties that they need.

Dauphinais: How does the work that you do with K-12 students differ from the work that you do with adults?

Woodson: Basically, with the K-12, we're helping those students in Marion County high schools, making sure they complete those requirements for 21st Century Scholars. Now, on the adult side, what we are doing, especially at Ivy Tech and IUPUI, our completion grants are [for] a lot of our adult students. And those students are students who have been students at some point at Ivy Tech or IUPUI, and they stopped out for whatever reason. And so with our completion grants, we're able to help them financially and paying whatever back debt they have with a college or university to get them back started.

Dauphinais: So it's both completion and access that you're focusing on.

Woodson: Absolutely. Our completion grants are kind of twofold. Reconnect, which again, are those students who stopped out for whatever reason, and one thing we're seeing with our reconnection grants is that it wasn't the academics for the students, because we're seeing GPAs of 3., 3.6 and higher. So of course, it wasn't the academics, it was probably financial and just life that got in the way for these students. And with our reaching completion grants, we want to make sure those students who are close to turning that tassel at Ivy Tech or IUPUI, can actually reach that finish line. If again, they are coming up short on financial aid, we want to make sure they reach that finish line with our reaching completion grants.

Dauphinais: What are your future goals for the program?

Woodson: I want to take our program on the road. I know we've done this in the past prior to COVID. And I want to get back to this because again, I believe in coming on the student's turf during their time, not asking them to leave school and then come back. So again, taking the coaching program on the road, having my students or excuse me, my coaches, talk to students at the high schools that are going to Ivy Tech and IUPUI again, so they can meet them and at least know one face on campus before they get there.

Dauphinais: Thank you so much for talking with me today. It's been a pleasure.

Woodson: Thank you, Sydney.

Contact WFYI economic equity reporter Sydney Dauphinais at sdauphinais@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @syddauphinais.

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