By Mick Zais
As the former Superintendent of Education for South Carolina, I worked to transform the information provided and options offered to students and parents. The goal was that each student would leave high school confident about what comes afterwards. While a four-year college degree is the path of choice for many students, many would prefer pursuing vocational experiences and learning marketable skills. Each student is unique and their interests and talents vary accordingly. As educators, we need to embrace these differences and help our students select the path that is best aligned with their skills and aspirations. For some, that is a traditional four year degree, for others, an associate’s degree, or an industry credential.
With this in mind, I approached the “Back to School” tour with the goal of highlighting programs, schools and institutions that are “Rethinking” their approach to career and technical education.
During the week of September 9, 2018, senior staff from the U.S. Department of Education traveled across the country on the Back to School Tour, visiting schools in 46 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I kicked off my part of the tour at the Anoka Ramsey Technical College and Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP) in Anoka, Minnesota. This is a promising partnership between a local community college and the Anoka-Hennepin School District. It is designed to offer high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors the opportunity to explore careers, fulfill high school academic requirements, and earn college credit at no cost. The program is specifically designed for students interested in preparing for highly skilled technical careers. Jessica Lipa, the Director of Career and Technical Education for Anoka-Hennepin Schools, led me through a tour of the nearly 20 different technical career options available. One of the classrooms I visited was a Machine Technology class where the students operated a 5-axis milling machine, one of the most advanced models in the field. Anoka-Hennepin Schools and Anoka Ramsey Technical College have done a commendable job in bringing together the education leaders with members of their business community to create programs aligned with local workforce needs.
My next stop was a visit to Summit Academy OIC. This is an accredited vocational school located in northern Minneapolis. Mr. Louis King II is the President and CEO. Shortly after my arrival, he shared with me that Summit operates under the mantra “the best social service program in the world is a job”. He has built the academy’s programs around that concept. Summit Academy is “Rethinking” school by offering accredited, 20-week vocational trainings in the construction, healthcare and IT fields. Most recently, Summit Academy has added a graduation equivalency degree (GED) program to meet the needs of their most underserved community members. Summit serves nearly 1,000 people every year, with about 80% students of color.
While touring the facility, I realized that Mr. King and the team at Summit Academy are providing adult learners with an opportunity to gain in-demand skills that will help them enter the workforce immediately. In fact, through partnerships with local businesses, Summit is usually able to place graduates with local employers earning more than $16.00 per hour. After the tour, I participated in a roundtable discussion with some of the students, staff and faculty of Summit Academy, as well as with several elected officials and other members of the community. It was heartening to see so many community leaders come together with the shared goal of preparing underserved populations for a high-paying career.
Our third stop was a visit to the Des Moines Area Community College’s (DMACC) Career Academy at the Hunziker Center in Aimes, Iowa. The DMACC Career Academy provides hands-on technical experience and college credit to area high school students in subjects such as: automotive collision and technology, computer programming and cyber security, diesel technology, fire science and horticulture. After touring several classrooms, I participated in a roundtable with students and faculty. While it was a thoroughly engaging discussion, I was most impressed with the amount of in-field experience possessed by each faculty member present. At one point, Dr. Robert Denson, the President of DMACC, proudly stated that he specifically hired for in-field experience, which he believes pays dividends in the classroom.
After leaving Iowa, my next visit was to Omaha Bryan High School in Nebraska. Before arriving at the high school, I met Matt Blomstedt, Nebraska’s Commissioner of Education, and his Deputy, Deborah Frison, for lunch at a local restaurant. The Commissioner was kind enough to update me on the innovative programs at Omaha Bryan High School and discuss the state of education in Nebraska more broadly. While I certainly wish he could have joined us for the school visit, I was honored that he and his team took the time to meet with me while I was in their state.
Omaha Bryan High School has built its curriculum around 16 career clusters, designed to equip students with the skills necessary to be successful in the modern work force. During the tour of the facility, I observed the facilities for the school’s urban agriculture academy and viewed their progress in constructing a new warehouse for their Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics Academy. Throughout my visit, I was joined by Dr. Cheryl Logan, the Superintendent of Omaha Public Schools, and Mr. John Witzel, the President of the Nebraska State Board of Education. We had an illuminating discussion about how Omaha, the largest city in a state without charter schools, still found ways to embrace a form of choice. Omaha Public Schools accomplished this by working with neighboring school districts to allow students and families to choose the school that was right for them.
The fifth stop on my tour was at Madison High School in Madison, South Dakota. The town of Madison has a population of slightly more than 7,200 people. It’s located in farm country. Upon arriving, I was greeted by the school principal, Adam Shaw, and the state’s interim Secretary of Education, Mary Stadick-Smith. Together, we viewed a welding classroom that relies on community partners to supply trained professionals who teach students advanced welding techniques. The class can also count for college credit. We then visited a culinary arts classroom where students can earn a certificate allowing them to work in most culinary institutions and restaurants. Overall, I was most impressed with how this small community effectively used its resources by leveraging relationships between the schools and local businesses.
For my final visit, I toured New Technology High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. While this school is operated by the Sioux Falls School District, New Technology High School uses their own school reform model and curriculum which highlights cross-discipline study and project-based learning. Secretary Smith and I were joined by Sue Augilar, President of the South Dakota Board of Education Standards. Together, we visited a BioLit (Biology and English II) classroom where we viewed presentations on a project called “Mystery, We Wrote.” The project requires the students to use deductive reasoning, as well as actual forensic methods, to solve a criminal case. The students are then asked to write and perform a skit based around the project. I was most impressed with the level of commitment demonstrated by the students and their willingness to tackle complicated, cross-discipline study. New Technology High School should be proud of their students. They are terrific ambassadors for their school and a testament to the program.
I am honored to have had the privilege of visiting so many amazing schools and programs. Each is an example of how it is possible to rethink school to meet the needs of all students. The most recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau states found that about 33% of American adults have a four year degree. We have a duty to the other 67% to ensure that they are prepared for careers in the modern workforce. The schools I visited, like many others around the country, stand at the forefront of this innovative and flexible approach to learning that is connected to the world of work. I am encouraged to know that others across the country are also embracing these more personalized approaches.