MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

June 30, 2013

Making students job-ready a challenge

Educators seek to teach marketable skills

When computers began to make their way into classrooms in the ’80s and ’90s, schools didn’t make big changes in curriculum.

“I remember that people just didn’t believe computers had a role to play in school,” said Joel Robison, chief of staff at the State Department of Education. “You get comfortable with what you have and you don’t really want to change. But the realities of the time require you to change.”

School districts, including Muskogee Public Schools, are moving away from writing essays on notebook paper. Instead, every student will have a laptop and do much, if not all, of their work on the Internet.

But the big push to integrate technology into all curriculum could leave out skills students should learn, some educators say.

State Rep. Jerry McPeak, D-Warner, is a lifelong educator and big supporter of public schools and vocational centers.

McPeak acknowledges the need to point all high school students toward college so they don’t miss out on options when they graduate.

But he wants to know if students are learning marketable skills to survive just in case they decide not to pursue further education once leaving high school.

Those who opt to take advantage of free vocational courses at CareerTech centers aren’t the ones he’s worried about. Nor is he worried about those on a college track who know by the time they graduate which college they will attend and their major.

Instead, McPeak is concerned about the multitude of high school students who fall somewhere in between — or fall through the cracks entirely.

“When I was in school I knew I was going to school to get done and get a job someday,” McPeak said. “Today’s kids are going to school to get an education. Does the public understand the difference?”

Muskogee Public Schools wants their students to graduate with skills that will take them straight to jobs if they want to, said district spokeswoman Melony Carey.

“We have many students in CareerTech courses at Muskogee High School. We also have desktop publishing, family and consumer sciences, carpentry, welding, vocational agriculture and computer repair,” she said.

Superintendent Mike Garde’s vision is to have courses that are not just “shop courses,” but ones that will give students marketable skills in emerging technologies, Carey said.

“We do that now with our carpentry and other courses,” she said. “Many of the new routers and other machines are computer-driven, for example. And the Fab Lab will also help give students those kind of skills.”

A recent bond issue passed by voters will allow the district to build the Fab Lab at the high school in the near future. It includes plasma cutters, 3-D printers and other high technology tools for students to learn to use.

“We still point students toward college, because what they want for the future may change, and we want them to be prepared for all options,” Carey said. “Ideally, we want kids to find their passion, whether it is in mechanics or literature. You have to expose students to a variety of courses and topics, because you never know what will spark a career or a lifelong pursuit.”

Though it’s great to have kids ready to choose college or vocational school upon graduation, McPeak said, there are those who plan to go straight to work because they know they aren’t going to college or CareerTech after high school. And sometimes there are students who aren’t achieving academically, for whatever reason, who need to learn job skills.

Joel Robison, chief of staff of the State Department of Education, said it’s “tragic we have the kids that do drop out.”

And whether it’s at a local or a state level, solutions must be found to make every student successful, he said.

“We just don’t buy into the premise that any kid can’t be successful,” Robison said. “We believe it’s the schools’ responsibility working with the parents or the students themselves to create an environment to be successful.”

Unfortunately, an environment that breeds success isn’t something every student has, McPeak said.

“We have kids that don’t have much expectations for themselves, or don’t have parents or other support,” he said. “Those are the ones we’re concerned about, the ones that are prepared to go get a minimum wage job, and that’s all they expect to have in their lives.”

And even if they leave high school able to write a five-paragraph essay or use a computer, what marketable skills do they have?

In Muskogee County, more than 80 percent of the population has at least a high school education, according to the U.S. Census.

More than 18 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree.

But there aren’t many jobs in Muskogee County looking for workers with a college education.

Dal-Tile, Georgia-Pacific and Whitlock Manufacturing are some of the largest employers in the area.

Most of the positions they hire for don’t require a college education. But most positions do require some kind of skills or certifications.

A recent ad for a warehouse associate at one of the manufacturers in the area required applicants to have something called “INWarehouse Certifications,” forklift certification and customer service experience.

So, even for a warehouse worker, students need to go to CareerTech, such as Indian Capital Technology Center in Muskogee.

Muskogee Public Schools wants its students to graduate with skills and certifications that will take them to college, vocational school or straight to jobs if they want to, Carey said.

But funding is not available to help students test for certifications, even in the vocational courses the high school does offer, she said.

Reach Wendy Burton at (918) 684-2926 or wburton@muskogeephoenix.com.

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