Education: The future of FutureReady Columbus

Kathy Lynn Gray
Lillian Lowery

When the fledgling FutureReady Columbus lost its founding leader, the education initiative of Columbus movers and shakers seemed to stand still. Now, the group is moving forward again with two main objectives as its board searches for a new CEO.

Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther, one of two co-chairs, says he was disappointed but understanding when the group's leader, Lillian Lowery, announced in March that she was leaving to take a job with the Education Trust think tank in Washington, D.C.

Lowery's move from the East Coast to head FutureReady in September 2015 came with much fanfare: She'd been state superintendent in Maryland and Delaware and had a 31-year career in education. Her abrupt Columbus departure raised questions about why she left and what the future might hold for the group, which had evolved as a response to rebuilding Columbus City Schools in the aftermath of the data-scrubbing scandal and the spectacular defeat of a 2013 school levy that had been promoted heavily by powerful city leaders.

Lowery wouldn't comment for this story. But both Ginther and George Barrett, the group's other co-chair, say the offer from the Education Trust was too good for her to pass up. “She's a national thought leader on education,” says Barrett, CEO of Cardinal Health.

Ginther says Lowery was not pushed out and had completed a strategic plan for the group before she left. He says that after Lowery left, he and Barrett worked with the staff of seven rather than having an interim leader. Some employees are “moving on” after Lowery's departure, but a “core group” remains, he adds.

David Donaldson, the group's chief operating officer, said in an email he could not comment about Lowery or the organization's future. Ginther hopes a search firm will help the board find a successor by early fall. “We want to find a very accomplished, capable leader who knows how to bring people together to get results,” Ginther says.

In the meantime, the board has decided that FutureReady will focus on two goals: increasing access to early childhood education and providing teenagers with more work-readiness opportunities beyond college degrees. The group also will expand its efforts throughout Franklin County rather than restricting itself to Columbus, the mayor says.

To be clear: FutureReady isn't setting up preschools or apprenticeships itself. Instead, it brings private and public groups together to figure out the best ways to implement the two goals. “It helps facilitate [the goals] by bringing partners to the table,” explains Rhonda Johnson, education director for the city of Columbus. She says FutureReady's $2.4 million budget comes from private and public funding.

The overarching goal of the organization is to improve education in the community and, by doing so, fuel its economy. “We know that with early childhood intervention, if we can get engaged with these kids earlier, the investment tends to pay back,” Barrett says. That means, according to FutureReady's strategic plan, increasing the percentage of Columbus children ready for kindergarten—currently 65 percent—to 90 percent by 2025.

Similarly, exposing young people to in-demand fields—such as skilled trades, the culinary arts and law enforcement—could boost the economy while providing jobs and careers, Ginther says. “We need to make sure that the young people who need training for emerging jobs are getting what they need,” he says. “We need to focus on the 20,500 kids who aren't enrolled in any school, educational classes or work.”