When it comes to economic development, there is no doubt that education plays a big role.
Every company needs skilled workers to thrive – whether it’s someone parked in front of a keyboard, running a piece of sophisticated machinery or elbows deep in muck.
While local schools are proud of their graduates who go on to advanced college degrees, a good school system also needs to focus on getting other students ready to enter the job force.
Local educators say they have made a point of emphasis of preparing kids to be college-ready and/or career-ready.
Last summer Todd Tucker, president of the Surry Economic Development Partnership, met with educators at Surry Community College. In his speech, Tucker talked about some of the traits that prospective employees are seeking.
“Having well-trained workers can reduce risks, drive innovation and support competitive advantage,” he said. “Having a qualified workforce attracts firms and more talent.”
Companies want workers who can solve problems and think creatively, Tucker said. They want people who are willing to listen and follow, but also can communicate with others and show leadership skills.
Preparing children starts from day one. Carrie Venable, public information officer for Mount Airy City Schools, said teachers emphasize a philosophy starting in kindergarten.
“Leader in Me (a K-5 program that we are looking to grow to include 6-8) teaches students to own their learning, share their successes and growth, and work with others,” Venable said. “As adults, we are working daily on ‘win-win’ strategies, and the Leader in Me helps students learn about these effective strategies and how to incorporate them in school and life.”
There are seven ideas that the teachers try to instill as habits when problem-solving:
• Be Proactive
• Begin with the end in mind
• Put first things first
• Think Win-Win
• Seek first to understand, then to be understood
• Sharpen the Saw
“In student focus groups led by K-5 students, they frequently mentioned the habits as they worked through problems and looked for ways to improve school,” said Venable.
Tharrington Primary School also has a dual-immersion program where children spend half their time learning in English and half their time in Spanish so that they can become fluent in both languages. Many employers are looking for people who are bilingual to help with Hispanic customers.
City and county schools focus on PBL (problem-based learning) and STEM, which combines knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math. Some teachers also refer to STEAM, which incorporates art into the mix.
Through STEAM, PBL and CTE (career and technical education) programming, Venable said, “Mount Airy City Schools is providing students with a variety of experiences where they strengthen their skills in problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, communication, and creativity.”
“The vision statement for the district is: All Mount Airy City Schools students will think critically, innovatively solve problems, and be responsible citizens and confident leaders with a passion for learning,” she said.
“In Project Lead the Way (PLTW), which is offered at all four middle schools and all four high schools, students are working on teamwork, collaboration, and problem-solving all the time,” said Dr. Jill Reinhardt, SCS assistant superintendent.
“Employers tell us they need employees who can think critically, problem-solve and work collaboratively with others. … Students who take the capstone PLTW course (Engineering Design and Development) are involved in collaborative teams who try to solve a real-world problem. They research, design, test a solution, and ultimately, present their solution to a panel of experts. These students become ready to tackle any post-secondary program and/or career.”
Understanding what companies wants also means educating the teachers, too, believes Dr. Travis Reeves, superintendent of Surry County Schools.
After Todd Tucker’s speech last summer, a group of teachers boarded a bus and went on a tour of three businesses to learn more about where today’s students could one day be working.
Surry County Schools has its Business Advisory Council to provide valuable insight.
Among the council’s priorities is finding ways to accomplish the vision of connecting workforce development, education, and economic development, and also to develop clear lines of communication between business, educators, and parents about workforce needs and workforce availability.
Another way to get the business world into the classroom is to give the teachers some hands-on experience.
About 40 teachers will give up a few days of their summer break to spend on a job, gaining first-hand knowledge of local business.
“The goal of Surry STEMmersion is to connect classroom instruction to business and industry needs through teacher ‘externships,’” said Reinhardt.
“By exposing teachers to real-life applications, the externship enables teachers to develop curriculum suited for their classrooms that reflects the world of work. … Ultimately, students benefit through powerful learning activities that prepare them for success in the modern workplace.
STEMmersion lasts 2-5 days. Teachers are paired with a mentor within the organization who guides and oversees the experience.
The businesses don’t have to pay the teachers a salary. The SCS Education Foundation provides a $100 stipend per day.
Teachers pick where they would like to go so that they find a business that relates to their classrooms.
“Students may ask, ‘What is the relevancy of what you’re teaching me?’” said Dr. Reeves. Now the teachers can have some answers.
Comments Reeves heard from teachers after last year’s externship included “I never understood how technology fit into this job” and “now I know how to apply theorems to real workplace experiences.”
While early grades are important, it’s the high school years where students can truly start personalizing their educational experience.
One might wonder how a school can balance preparing some students for university and while helping others get ready for the work force.
“It isn’t so much a balance, but it’s more about preparing students to make a decision that best fits them and what they want for their future,” said Venable.
Mount Airy High works with students right from their freshmen years to create four-year plans based on their needs and goals. The school makes kids aware of what is required to matriculate to a four-year school, while also helping kids keep as many options open as possible, she said.
Some new classes at Meadowview Magnet Middle School will allow students to earn high school credit in the eighth grade, noted Reinhardt. She said 48 children earned their Math I credit this year to go toward their high school requirements.
Some kids could enter high school with up to four credits, which frees up their senior year for taking college classes, added Reeves.
Then with the Early College and the Surry Virtual Academy, students can fit their classes around their lifestyle and earn college credit at the same time.
Reinhardt said that SCS students earned 3,109 college credits in the 2015-16 school year. That rate is rising quickly as the first semester alone of this school year saw students earn 2,020 credits. She said the number of credits earned last year equates to about $220,000 in tuition savings for students and their families.
Mike Rowe, who hosted the TV show “Dirty Jobs” for eight seasons on the Discovery channel, has long been a proponent of technical training.
He posted this comment on his Facebook page:
“I look at education like fitness. Both are critical to a vital existence, both can be purchased for varying costs, and both require serious effort if there is to be a benefit. But there’s a weird difference. If you work out at The Y for $50 a month – instead of a fancy club for $500 a month – no one questions your commitment to fitness. In fact, you’re congratulated for your fiscal sense.
“But if you go to a community college or trade school for $50 a credit – instead of a university for $500 a credit – you’re compared in a much less favorable way. In fact, you’re not compared at all. You’re dismissed as intellectually inferior. That’s the bias that needs to be challenged.”
During a budget meeting with the county Board of Commissioners, Dr. David Shockly, SCC president, noted that there is a shortage of electrician students across the state despite the fact that the average annual salary in North Carolina is $51,000.
Both local school systems have many courses available through CTE programming (career and technical education).
Throught CTE, students can earn industry-recognized credentials in specific career pathways that prove students have gained knowledge and experience that will make them better employees, said Reeves.
Many students at Mount Airy High complete courses with certificates, said Venable. These include CNA (certified nursing assistant/nurse aid), Career Readiness Certification, WCA (Woodwork Career Alliance), Autodesk certified user, Workplace Readiness Soft Skills, Everfi (financial literacy), Microsoft programs like Access, Excel, PowerPoint and Word.
In the 2015-16 school year, 200 certificates were earned, said Venable. And 90 percent of students working toward a CTE certification earned that certificate.
In fact, health sciences and HOSA Club have become so popular for Mount Airy students that the district is looking to hire a second teacher to work with teacher Lynn Snow, HOSA sponsor.
Reeves recounted how he took his son for a haircut and saw a student working in the shop. Amber Simmons started taking cosmetology classes a couple of years ago when she was a North Surry student. Now as her classmates are planning for graduation and going off to college, Amber already has gotten a job in her chosen field.
School systems are thinking outside the brick-and-mortar structures these days to give students the tools they need, said Reinhardt.
Another way to prepare kids for the workplace is internship.
“We have student internships through our RCR partnership, and 52 student interns are interning with businesses in our community,” said Venable, referring to the school’s work with Richard Childress Racing and other businesses.
“Let’s put kids in a job where they make money, but maybe it also leads to something,” said Reeves.
Of course, he added, this allows students to explore careers they may want and may not want.
“Most everyone has tried something and decided that wasn’t for them,” he said. “This can save parents money that kids aren’t chasing something they ultimately don’t want.”
Another hands-on experience has been North Surry’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Students from East Surry and Surry Central have traveled to North to join in the building of a home that can be delivered to a site and set up for a needy family.
The county schools started this partnership in 2012 and are now working on the fifth house for the charity.
Another way to get teens thinking about their future plans is a career fair where they get to meet representatives of businesses and learn more about what skills the employers expect.
“Many students are wary of pursuing a postsecondary education unless they have a job outcome in mind, and others who want to begin a career need some clarification about their choices,” said Reinhardt.
North Surry’s first career day was in November where students learned about engineering and manufacturing. The second career day on March 29 focused on agriculture and hospitality. About 200 students attended the most-recent fair, according to Reinhardt.
Meadowview Magnet held its first career fair March 8-9 with 16 different career clusters represented, according to the assistant superintendent.