Vocational Schools Add Innovation to Attract Students

Vocational and technical schools across the US are getting a facelift. Without these schools that offer students skills for the workforce, many companies say they will not be able to keep up in today's rapidly-developing global economy.

While the US high school graduation rate is on the rise, from 74% in 2007 to 81% in 2012, American schools are still behind their worldwide peers, ranking 22nd out of 28 countries followed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

One such career-education program is in the works in Louisiana.

Jump Start, approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education this March, will offer students pursuing career and technical educations the ability to gain credentials in more than 20 fields. Legislation approved $12 million to be used toward the program.

State Superintendent of Education John White calls the initiative an effort to "dignify career education". Currently, only 1% of high school graduates in the state earn a career diploma. Officials are hoping to reduce the stigma associated with earning such a degree.

"There is not an initiative in our high schools where there is greater attention or greater focus, greater energy, than there is on Jump Start," state Superintendent of Education John White told reporters.

Students who earn career diplomas will also earn points for their school on their annual performance ratings.

In order to earn a traditional high school diploma, students must earn 23 units. A career diploma would involve having 9 of these units be in the field the student picks, such as nursing, carpentry and car repair. These units are referred to as "graduation pathways" constructed by three regional teams in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Acadiana. Units can be earned through traditional classes, internships, college courses, or on-the-job training.

The grass-roots effort shows how schools, colleges and local businesses can all work together for a common goal. According to White, "these organizations can collaborate."

As of July, 65 of the 70 public school systems in the state were signed up to participate in the program.

A similar program is starting in Omaha, Nebraska, where schools are looking to partner with local businesses to give students the experience they need. The focus of this program is typically within the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

With 55 million job openings expected through 2020, most of which will require at least some form of secondary education, the program's career education coordinator Ken Spellman is looking to increase the number of dual enrollment courses offered which would allow students to receive college credit. Businesses further their education by providing internship opportunities after class and on weekends.

The program's goal is to have students graduate with a high school diploma, college credits, and possibly even professional certification.

"Everybody is going to end up with a job," he said. "It's our goal to ensure that kids are prepared for that job or that post-secondary experience once they graduate from our programs."

Another program created by Southwire, a Georgia-based company with 7,500 workers, offers high school dropouts the ability to gain valuable workplace skills while earning salaries above minimum wage. The company also offers motivation to gain a positive attitude toward work and school for the troubled teens that take part, writes Jonathan House for The Wall Street Journal.

Students spend eight hours a day in Southwire classrooms and another four on the factory floor, bringing concepts to life in real-world situations, all while earning $9 an hour. Coursework can either be done at their previous school or on-site. Diplomas are given out through the local school district.

"That's one reason I like being here—because I'm at school, and I'm making a bit of money too," says Rafael Rodriguez, an 18-year-old son of Mexican immigrants.

The program began in 2007 with an investment of $3 million, and has gone on to make a profit for the company while improving the lives of economically disadvantaged students at the same time.


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