CHARLOTTESVILLE — The more pathways educators can offer students to help them graduate with experience or credit for the career or college they choose, the better the future will be for high school students, says Eastern Hancock Superintendent George Philhower.

It’s why Philhower was more than excited to recently learn and announce Eastern Hancock has been awarded Indiana’s Excellence in Education Award from the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) for the work they’ve done in student pathways programming.

Philhower noted the prestigious award comes with a substantial cash prize — a grant of $250,000. It’s money district officials can use to continue their work to help kids find the best paths toward graduation.

“It’s a big deal,” Philhower said. “It goes towards our student pathways programming, which is all about connecting our kids to experiences that will help them make better decisions about their future.”

Officials with the IDOE hand out awards and grants a couple of times each year to school districts making strides and setting examples surrounding education.

“We were the state’s selected school in this category,” Philhower said. “When I got the email, I had to read it a couple of different times to make sure I was understanding it right because I was caught off guard.”

The award will allow district officials to use the money in many ways they’d only dreamed of. They plan to put some of the money back into the pathway programming they already have to make it even better. They’d also like to purchase specialized training equipment and get educators trained to help students.

“We can’t use the money to hire another teacher because this is a one-year grant so we’ll use the money to sustain what we’ve got going and as a catalyst to make our programming even better,” Philhower said.

They’ll also use the money to help grant classroom wishes for educators who are offering unique learning opportunities.

“We’ve got some really great plans from teachers doing some really great things in their classrooms, and they always have a wish list of things they need,” Philhower said. “This money will allow us to take care of some of those wishes.”

Philhower noted their new Vet Science class has a long list of needs, and he’s hoping some of the money can help fulfill needs there where kids are studying science.

“We just got some new goats for that class from another grant, but there are other needs and now we can help get even more things,” Philhower said.

Students in the Vet Science class are getting real hands-on animal experience with the goats, chickens and more. Philhower noted this type of hands-on learning is great for students who love 4-H or want to go into the field of science.

While district officials say it’s difficult to put a number on the different types of hands-on learning or real-life work experiences they offer students in reality it’s unlimited.

“Any kid, and we want to be able to work with any kid and help them figure out what they want to do and then get them on the path to making that happen,” Philhower said.

Philhower noted the community partners programming they have with businesses in and around Hancock County make their pathway programming possible, and he is eternally grateful for the work and hands-on learning opportunities Eastern Hancock students are being given.

“Because we are a small school, we may not be able to provide every kid with what type of class they may want to take, but we have enough pathways that it gives us the flexibility to work individually with every single kid,” Philhower said. “Our community partners make that possible because that allows us to partner our kids with who they want to be when they grow up and graduate.”

District officials note winning the award goes to show a school district doesn’t have to be massive in order to provide real learning opportunities for students. Philhower feels officials with the IDOE understand that and rewarded Eastern Hancock for their efforts.

“Being a small school, I know some may think there are disadvantages when it comes to receiving accolades or offering classes for kids, and while we may be a small school, we are proud we are the state’s example of providing pathways for our kids,” Philhower said. “It feels pretty good.”

The district will spend the money and then be reimbursed by the state. Philhower noted he’s already turned in the budget, and says they will start spending as soon as the IDOE approves their list.

“We’ve got to spend the $250,000 before the end of 2024 and we will,” he said.