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High schools create career connections

Districts team up with local industry to supply skills students need to succeed in the workforce
  • A FUTURE IN MIND—Local industries connect with districts to teach work skills. Fulton County students work cameras in program aligned with film industry.
  • A Fulton County student operates a drone.
  • A senior at Papillion La Vista Community Schools in Nebraska works with a nurse at the local hospital.
  • Students at the Fulton County College & Career Academy can enroll in half-day programs in five film-related careers, including audio-video technology.
  • The General McLane School District conducts training, above, for guidance counselors and career teachers involved in the 16 Erie-area districts that teach certain skills. Area manufacturers and businesses can view the standard credentials from all local graduates, and see they are prepared.

Atlanta’s film industry has in recent years boomed to third place behind Los Angeles and New York City, and incoming studios noted a major skills gap when looking for videographers, scene constructors, prop creators and costume designers.

Leaders of Fulton County Schools in Georgia responded. Three years ago, administrators met with studio executives to develop curriculum pathways that would align with industry needs. Now, students at the Fulton County College & Career Academy can enroll in half-day programs in five film-related pathways: carpentry, culinary, audio-video technology, digital media/animation and audio-flight operations.

“Students are able to complete the entire pathway in one year,” says Yalanda Bell, executive director of career and technical education for Fulton County Schools. “At a traditional high school, that would take three years.”

Only about half of all U.S. high school students take the needed sequence of courses to be considered ready for college or careers, according to an Education Trust report. Plus, students with greater exposure to career and technical education are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, become employed and earn higher wages, says a 2016 Fordham University study that focused on aligning courses with specific industries.

To meet film-industry workforce needs, Fulton County’s career and technical education team tackled several logistical concerns. Because many interested students wouldn’t be able to provide their own transportation to the academy, for example, Bell encouraged the school board to provide funding to bus students to campus.

The board also agreed to use special-purpose sales tax funding to purchase new computers for the audio-video technology pathway and to outfit the culinary kitchen with professional-grade equipment. It was also used to purchase flight simulators for the flight operations pathway and construction tools and equipment for the construction pathway.

“It’s become more important for us to expose students to career possibilities at early ages,” Bell says. “It’s just as important for them to decide what they don’t want to do as it is to decide what they want to do.”

Fulton County and many other districts across the country now team with their business communities to confront the workplace skills gap.

‘We do have the students’

Many of today’s more targeted career partnerships start with district leaders’ desire to align skills to workforce needs and to train educators to teach the more intricate courses.

At General McLane School District in Pennsylvania, Superintendent Richard Scaletta led the charge by applying for local and regional grants to fund software that aligns curriculum objectives with workplace skills. The software, called My Strategic Compass from WIN Learning, helps students identify which skills they need to learn in core classes to qualify for job positions. Sixteen Erie-area districts use the software.

“We’ve been hearing this story about students not being skilled again and again,” he says. “It’s a fixable problem, but no one district can provide all of the workers needed.”

The area districts agreed to use the same comprehensive career software so that area manufacturers and businesses can look at standard credentials from all local graduates. Administrators have access to the back end of the software and can track students across all skills levels.

“Now when businesses come to us and say we don’t have enough students with math skills, we can look at the hundreds of students who have earned the level needed for their jobs,” Scaletta says. “We know specifically that we do have the students out there who are prepared, so then the question focuses on recruitment.”

Other national groups, such as the Center for Energy Workforce Development and the National Restaurant Association, have outlined employability skills needed in their industries and created lesson plans for teachers.

In addition, the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) features eight “Taking Business to Schools” case studies on its website that explain how businesses and educational institutions have partnered to give students work-based learning opportunities.

UPS, for instance, partnered with the University of Louisville, Jefferson Community and Technical College, and the Louisville Metro and Commonwealth of Kentucky school districts to create Metropolitan College, a program that allows night-shift UPS employees to complete postsecondary education.

Likewise, Siemens paired with Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, to offer apprenticeships to high school students during their senior year, with potential for a job offer upon graduation.

“The skills gap is real,” says Stephen DeWitt, ACTE’s deputy executive director. “The direction that I’m seeing now is that more industries as a whole are working together to better outline what skills are needed and how we can get students to that point.”

In the delivery room

Administrators at Papillion La Vista Community Schools in Nebraska have created more than 180 partnerships through an initiative called Cooperation Better Educating Students Together (BEST), which has linked businesses and classrooms since 1995. The partnerships invite professionals to be guest speakers, host day-long field trips and create internships.

Lois Erickson, the Cooperation BEST coordinator, maintains connections with each business. In one partnership with a local sandwich company, for instance, workers visit the Papillion schools during lunchtime throughout the year and talk to students about using math functions and fractions to divide their sandwiches. As part of an informal apprenticeship program, a Best Buy Geek Squad employee works with students on computer-related projects.

“Now we have a system to find the connections to curriculum, add new partners and keep the collaborations going,”says John Schwartz, Papillion’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

The district also partners with CHI Health Midlands Hospital to allow selected students could complete rotations in their hospitals. The program offers AP credit and certified nursing assistant certification. The internship experiences help students decide on a potential career path, provide a connection to core curriculum and allow most students an opportunity they would not otherwise have until their third year of college.

“They’re in the room when babies are born,” Schwartz says. “They watch paramedics wheel patients off emergency vehicles into the hospital.”

Breaking with tradition

This new breed of CTE programs provide professional development opportunities for teachers as well. At Driver’s Village, an auto dealership in Syracuse, New York, Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certified instructors teach mechanics and repairs in a meeting space at the dealership rather than in a traditional classroom at a school.

“In New York, four of the 180 calendar school days are set aside for professional development,” says Colleen Viggiano, assistant superintendent of student services of Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services (OCM BOCES). “In this program, however, the teachers see the industry on a daily basis.”

The students work alongside teachers and dealership technicians in the immersive half-day program, and earn college credit through written and performance-based assessments. As part of the program, students also complete individual and group projects on vehicles and fill out an employability profile that documents the mechanical skills learned.

The board’s advisory council coordinates curriculum discussions among the dealership, district and local higher education institutions. In this case, Automotive Service Excellence has an established national curriculum, which matches the dealership’s needs and the course requirements at the nearby community colleges. The New York Department of Education also approved the program.

“We’re trying to break traditional beliefs about what schools should look like,” says OCM BOCES Superintendent Jody Manning. “This innovative model requires an out-of-the-box approach that gets students out of the traditional classroom.”

Carolyn Crist is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.