Schools eye career readiness

Educators focus on students being prepared for next stage of life

The popularity of career and technical education — sometimes known as “vo-tech” — is on the rise in Missouri’s high schools.

More than 177,000 students — two in every three — participated in at least one career and technical education program during the 2012-13 school year, said Dennis Hardin, career education coordinator for the Missouri Department of Education. He presented his data to the Missouri School Boards’ Association, which met at Tan-Tar-A at the Lake of the Ozarks this weekend.

Almost 26,000 of those students earned three or more credits in a sequence, meaning they likely mastered a skill or even earned a certification.

“We think we’ll see those numbers continue to grow as schools move towards career academies,” he added.

He also noted that student organizations — like Future Business Leaders of America, Future Farmers of America and Skills USA — are also growing in strength. More than 74,000 Missouri students participate annually and five of the organizations rank in the Top 10, nationally, in terms of membership.

“We consider them an integral part of instruction,” he said.

Hardin noted that in 2012, a group of his peers in other states convened the “Career Readiness Partnership” to further define what it means to be ready for the workforce.

He said they defined “career readiness” in three ways: adaptability, employability and commitment to life-long learning.

“Students have to be adaptable, because the workplace changes so rapidly,” he said. “They need to be committed to lifelong learning. We all know that jobs change and we all have to upgrade our skills to stay current in the workplace.”

The term “employability” refers to all of those skills — punctuality, time on-task, adherence to safety requirements, etc. — people need to be effective workers, he noted.

He noted when DESE developed its “Top 10 by 20” strategic plan — which calls for Missouri to be ranked among the Top 10 states in education by the year 2020 — officials didn’t separate college readiness from career readiness, but combined them together.

Hardin said people tend to be familiar with their area vo-tech programs — like Jefferson City’s Nichols Career Center — but they don’t always notice the magnitude of career and technical education in Missouri.

He said the state has:

• 57 area career centers with four on community college campuses,

• 440 high school programs,

• one state technical college at Linn State,

• 12 community college districts, and

• seven four-year institutions offering associate’s degrees.

He also noted the state is seeing rapid growth in “Project Lead the Way,” a non-profit program that emphasizes learning in science, math, engineering and technology. The program provides teacher professional development and curriculum to thousands of schools around the country, including the Jefferson City Public Schools.

At Friday’s seminar, three other speakers: Jefferson City Superintendent Brian Mitchell, Nichols Career Center Director Sharon Longan, and Pathways to Prosperity Director Christy Davis, also shared their perspectives on “career readiness.”

Mitchell shared the JCPS’s work to develop career academies, which open this fall for the ninth-grade class.

He noted high schoolers today must prepare themselves for global competition.

“We want them prepared to compete with anyone, for any job, or any entry to a post-secondary program,” he said.

Longan talked about changes Nichols Career Center staff implemented last school year when they asked website design students to perform their work for real — not mock — business clients.

She said dealing with the unpredictability of a real client’s needs helped students delve deeply into the learning process.

“When a local business partner talks about the importance of appropriate office dress or timeliness, it has a greater impact than when a teacher or parent does,” Longan said.

Speakers also talked about the need for all students to pursue post-secondary training. While a four-year degree still has value, Davis said state education leaders have recognized the need for a variety of career pathways.

She noted 72 percent of American workers in 1973 had a high school diploma or less.

“It was the key to the American dream,” she said.

Three decades later that has shifted dramatically, she said.

In 2007 only 40 percent of American workers could find a job with a high school diploma or less, she said.

“That number is going to continue to shrink,” Davis said.

All the speakers agreed that high school education is no longer about training students for the workforce or for college, because students must be ready for both.

“Our job is to grow them into Grade 13,” Longan said. “It’s no longer college or career-ready.”

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