A panel of leaders from local educational institutions gathered Thursday at a Harrison County Community Foundation forum to discuss the current state and future possibilities of education at all levels.

Superintendents of all three Harrison County public school corporations were on the panel. Joining them, representing higher education, were Dr. Melissa Fry, director of Indiana University Southeast's Applied Research and Education Center and associate sociology professor, and Dr. David Eplion, dean of the School of Business at IUS.

Much of the conversation focused on the challenges schools face with rapidly-evolving technology and economic barriers that often stand between children and quality education and development.

Steve Morris, superintendent of Lanesville Community School Corp. and principal of Lanesville Junior-Senior High School, said, "When I look at schools today ... they're not going to be the same in 20 to 30 years."

He said the reality is that educators must do their best to prepare students for jobs that might not even exist yet.

"Our schools have got to reflect current and future conditions with regard to that," Morris said.

This means the days of preparing children for one specific career are pretty much gone, he said. Instead, schools are challenged not just to facilitate learning for kids, but to teach them how to learn and adapt to the constantly-evolving needs of the workforce.

A big factor in learning the skills needed to adapt to working conditions across multiple fields is social and emotional development.

Appropriately, Morris said the corporation will host a meeting, slated for Nov. 14 at 6 p.m., for parents to learn about social and emotional development.

This happens to be a subject Fry has studied heavily.

She said the most important time for a child's social and emotional development is between birth and 3 years, and, if a child falls behind in development compared to other children in this period, there's no catching up.

"Even if they have better environments later, they won't ever close that gap," Fry said.

By the time children enter kindergarten, she said, there is already a noticeable difference between social and emotional development of children who come from a language-rich environment and those who don't. Teachers can't make up for this gap at school, Fry said.

"Teachers will say, 'We can teach reading and math; we can't teach these social and emotional skills'," she said.

Social and emotional development doesn't just happen at pre-K and elementary ages, however; development gaps can follow children throughout their adolescence. With this in mind, the five panelists agreed that future public policies should and likely will focus on making quality early care and education affordable, possibly by treating it as an extension of existing public school systems.

Dr. Mark Eastridge, superintendent of South Harrison Community School Corp., said staff there started a new initiative in the spring aimed at addressing these development gaps.

The program is headed by Jennie Capelle, a former principal of Corydon Central High School who went on to serve as director of College and Career Readiness for the corporation, and it will combine the existing college and career readiness program with elements of social and emotional development.

"(We asked ourselves) how can we take the college and career readiness initiative; and take the social and emotional learning initiative and bring those together under the same header?" he said.

Eastridge and Morris, as well as Dr. Lance Richards, superintendent of the North Harrison Community School Corp., said they are big proponents of career training outside of traditional academic subjects. Specifically, all three lauded the Prosser Career Education Center in New Albany for covering a wide base of industries and trades students can learn about through its programs.

Eastridge and Richards both said through internships and with courses like those offered there, students can be exposed to high-level skills needed to make it in the real world.

Morris agreed with his colleagues that many students would benefit more by exploring the options at Prosser.

He said defining what it means for a student to be "college and career ready" is difficult because the needs of the workforce are always shifting with economic trends.

"I can tell you what (college and career readiness) is not: It's not giving ILEARN tests to fourth, fifth and sixth graders, having them fail and telling them they're not college and career ready," Morris said. "It's not that."

Morris said learning about different careers and developing social and emotional skills might be more appropriate for students than focusing on traditional subjects because those skills will be used for the students' entire lives.

"At 18, you've got to make a career decision? That's not right," he said, adding that he'd be a pharmacist today if that decision was permanent.

Richards echoed that sentiment.

"I don't want to tell a kid in eighth grade, 'This is your path.' I'd be a forest ranger if that was the case," he said. "It's important to know what you want to do, but it's probably more important to know what you don't want to do moving forward."

Richards said he thinks a portion of students' social problems could exist because they never have a chance to "unplug."

"Go to a restaurant and watch a young family and they've probably got an iPad, iPad, phone, phone," he said. "I don't mean to be all 'doom and gloom' about technology, but you just need to disconnect sometimes."

He said it used to be that children facing social problems at school would get a break from having to deal with it when school was out on evenings, weekends and summer breaks.

"Now, with today's technology, it goes home with them," he said.

Fry said mental health concerns, which can be compounded by information received or social interactions facilitated through technology, have climbed to the top of the list of reasons for students dropping out of college.

"There's a lot of stress right now in our culture and in our society, and I think students bear a lot of that," she said.

Morris said the evolution of technology has naturally corresponded with an evolution in the educational process.

"When you talk to a lot of the kids in college, a lot of it is electronic," he said, adding that some students might have classes where they never meet a professor face to face.

"I see a big need now for social and emotional resources for all of our students," Morris said. "All of us (local administrators) right now are trying to weave pieces of that inside of English, math, social studies and reading."

Eplion said that younger generations raised with the internet and other world-changing technologies are sometimes judged as lazy by those who have been in the workforce longer.

"The current generation gets a bad rep," he said.

Naturally, exposure to these technological skills can help students in the workforce, he said.

For instance, Eplion said data analysis is big right now in the business world and tech skills are important for doing it.

He said while incoming students might be somewhat lacking in quantitative skills when they arrive, those can be taught. And, in general, he said he's been impressed with the work ethic he has seen in new students at IUS.

"I'd second that," Fry said. "These kids are responsible for way more than I was responsible for at their age."

The Forum on Education was the final panel discussion in a series of three community conversations hosted by the Harrison County Community Foundation.