By Mike Marsee
Kentucky’s schools already were moving toward more career-focused studies, but a grant designed to create more career pathways for students has given it considerable momentum.
The progress made as a result of that grant and the possibilities for future success were showcased last week by the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) at the New Skills for Youth (NSFY) 2017 Fall Forum.
Educators and other participants heard about ways to create partnerships between schools and employers, the importance of developing career pathways for high-demand occupations, the creation of work-based learning opportunities and the establishment of regional career academies that can help make those things possible.
Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt said all of those things are necessary ingredients for career education that will truly prepare students for the workforce.
“This was something we were going to pursue regardless of whether we got the grant or not, because this was part of a bigger plan for us,” Pruitt said. “The idea that career and technical education improves lives is probably one of the biggest understatements in all of education. Everything we do in K-12 education needs to lead to a career.”
Kentucky was one of 10 states selected earlier this year to receive a $2 million grant to strengthen and expand career pathways as part of the national NSFY initiative. The goal of the initiative is to strengthen career-focused education starting in high school and ending with postsecondary degrees and credentials aligned with high-skill jobs.
NSFY Kentucky is using the funds to spur school districts to create regional career academies that are aligned with high-demand careers in their areas and that will include collaboration between K-12 education, postsecondary education and employers.
Three groups that are working to create the first of those academies through this process were featured at the New Skills for Youth forum. Grants were awarded to Burgin Independent, Corbin Independent and Lee County schools, but the partnerships established within those grants involve a total of 13 school districts, four area technology centers, three community and technical colleges and three four-year colleges, as well as economic and industrial development groups and private employers.
“It’s amazing, the work that these groups are doing. Employers are at the table, and secondary and postsecondary institutions are working together to identify how students can get an accelerated path to a job,” said Laura Arnold, associate commissioner with KDE’s Office of Career and Technical Education. “Right now our districts are planning what their pathways look like, and they’ll start registering for next year, with the academies opening in August.”
There will be room for more. The application period for a second round of grants will open in January.
“It’s an opportunity for high school administrators and school superintendents to think about transforming education in Kentucky high schools,” Arnold said. “How can we rethink what we’ve traditionally done in high school to give students accelerated opportunities? How can we combine resources to offer these opportunities earlier than we have in the past, and how can high school look different?”
Former Burgin Superintendent Richard Webb, who is serving as facilitator of the grant Burgin and four other districts are using to create a career academy that will focus on health care and advanced manufacturing, said schools are looking to offer programs students can use in their communities.
“I think the schools took the chance to do this simply because it’s the best thing to do for students,” said Webb, who also is the executive director of the Harrodsburg-Mercer County Industrial Authority. “They realize that there’s a donut hole of employment that we’ve been missing, and each one of them wants to be the first school to offer what their students actually need.
“They’re all offering the core content, but they’ll be able to offer career paths that have not been offered in the past. We’ve given lip service to that, but we’ve never been able to put it together where a student can come out of high school with a certification in industrial maintenance, take another year of college and have an associate degree where they enter the workforce making about $50,000 a year with full benefits. What we’re doing is trying to create opportunities for students where they can see an end result of getting out of high school and what their future plans are.”
Pooling the resources of several school districts to create regional career academies can help make that possible. Arnold said there is already an example of a successful regional career academy in Carrollton, where the iLead Academy opened in 2015 and serves students in five rural northern Kentucky districts.
“In times where resources and funding can become very tight, it’s a good opportunity for districts to almost do asset mapping, where they look at their existing resources and their needs and determine how they can pull together to provide more opportunities,” she said.
Webb said workers regularly cross county lines to get to their workplaces, and schools should do the same thing to prepare future workers.
“You’re better together than you are separately as far as school systems,” he said. “You have too many invisible county lines that people don’t seem to want to cross. We’ve got to do that to be able to offer students what they want.”
Ashley Bell, the principal at Barren County Area Technology Center, said that was one of the takeaways she got from the NSFY forum.
“It’s important to pool your resources together and to look at what’s best for our region as a whole. The walls have come down. That’s where this grant could come in,” Bell said. “Everyone’s goal is what’s best for kids, and that means collaborating among districts, bringing those resources together, because one community cannot do it alone.”
CheyAnne Fant, the director of nutrition services and 21st Century Community Learning Centers in Barren County, said her district is in the preliminary stages of putting together a partnership that might result in a regional career academy. She said that would go hand in hand with its participation in the Kentucky Work Ready Skills Initiative, a program of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet that awarded about $100 million in statewide bonds to 40 applicants earlier this year for projects that will expand career and technical education facilities and upgrade equipment in those schools through partnerships with education and industry.
“This goes along very well with the Work Ready grant that we have gotten. This will be another way we can add to the work we’re already doing,” Fant said.
“We’re partners with the community and with business and industry. That partnership is already there, it’s already aligned, and we feel this would be an easy transition for our community and our district,” Bell added.
Kentucky’s work in the NSFY initiative, which is a partnership including KDE and seven other entities, began with looking at labor market information to identify where high-demand, high-wage occupations are and linking them to secondary and postsecondary programs of study.
“When we look at several of our hot jobs, it’s more than just getting a degree. There are also certificates and credentials that can come along that path as you work toward a degree,” Arnold said.
Kentucky’s long-term plan involves the creation of rigorous pathways by educators and employers that would allow students to seamlessly transition from secondary to postsecondary programs to get the industry certifications and credentials they need.
Alex Derkson, vice president for global philanthropy with JPMorgan Chase, which awarded the grants to states along with the Council of Chief State School Officers, said he is impressed with what he has seen since Kentucky’s work began 11 months ago.
“We’ve seen some great work happening in the state since January, and we’re looking forward to what is to come in 2018 and beyond,” Derkson said.
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