Nontraditional education key for workers

July 6, 2005

Bulletin Staff Writer

More than 30 percent of Henry County and Martinsville residents do not have a high school diploma or GED, recent studies have found.

That is no way to attract new businesses and quality jobs to Henry County and Martinsville, members of the Strategic Action Committee (SAC) said recently in a presentation on education and work force development.

Linda Dorr, director of career and technical education for the Henry County Schools, said the SAC is committed to changing that number.

"Things have changed tremendously" from the time when local workers could get good jobs without an education, Dorr said. "Now we know a high school diploma is worth something, and (that many jobs) are going to require you to have some additional training."

The issue is part of the second strategy developed by SAC ? to identify and establish work force education and training ? and is addressed by five recommendations.

One calls on numerous local agencies to work together to create incentive-based GED programs. The plan cites a Patrick County Education Foundation program in Stuart as a good example. That program offers GED graduates a $1,000 voucher to be used for continuing education, vocational training or tax relief.

In addition to incentives, the plan calls on employers to encourage workers to continue their education.

It also calls for establishing a Virginia Middle College program at Patrick Henry Community College. That program at community colleges enables high school dropouts between 18 and 24 to earn GEDs and enroll in other course work. The program is free to students and aims to encourage them to earn post-secondary certificates, diplomas or degrees, the SAC plan says.

The recommendation highlights the Career Prep Academy. Recently funded through a $180,000 grant from the state Department of Education, the academy offers students who did not complete graduation requirements the chance to earn a high school diploma while completing an industry certification or state license.

This year, the pilot program, which will begin this month, will serve only students who should have graduated from Henry County Schools in 2004 or 2005. There will be no cost to students for the program.

A second recommendation in the SAC plan involves expanding two programs, the Path to Industry Certification and the Early Scholars program. Both operate in city and county schools and served a combined total of more than 750 students in the 2004-05 school year, Dorr said.

The Early Scholars program encourages high school students to earn college credit through either Advanced Placement or dual enrollment credits. Students who take Advanced Placement courses can take an exam at the end of the course. College credits are awarded based upon a student's score.

Dual enrollment courses allow students to receive credits through PHCC for courses they take at their high schools.

The Path to Industry Certification program encourages students to earn state licenses or industry certifications while still in high school. Specializations are available in areas ranging from cosmetology to auto body, said Dorr. More than 100 city and county students participated in the program in 2004-05, Dorr said.

Targeting students during their senior year of high school is key, she said.

"We're adding value to that senior year," Dorr said. "That's an important year. We don't want them to just take English and government."

A third recommendation involves assessing requirements in kindergarten through grade 12 and post-secondary schools. The plan addresses what it calls a common gap between expectations at the two levels.

It calls for comparing state Standards of Learning (SOL) requirements with college-level requirements; compiling relevant literature on teaching and learning; conducting focus groups to identify overlaps and gaps between secondary and post-secondary levels and proposing curricular adjustments to fix them; establishing a timeline and budget for implementation of a cohesive curriculum; conducting staff development; and developing an evaluation plan.

A fourth recommendation calls for developing a career guidance program for kindergarten through college students. A task force of guidance counselors from local schools, PHCC, private colleges and local four-year institutions would be formed to plan the system.

The group would take an inventory of existing career preparation programs. Typical career guidance programs create strong links between colleges and high schools, expose elementary students to a variety of careers, and incorporate mentoring, job shadowing and internships, the SAC plan says.

A fifth recommendation outlines developing a training program in "soft skills," including decision making, problem solving, communication, teamwork, accountability and long-term planning, the SAC says.

Although several local organizations address soft skills, including PHCC, the Virginia Employment Commission and the Chamber of Commerce, a comprehensive, affordable program is needed, the SAC says. It proposes combining elements of the existing programs into one program made available to adults, local students, the unemployed and underemployed. The plan proposes PHCC as program coordinator.

The SAC subcommittee did not address creating a pre-kindergarten system and lobbying to increase state funding for Henry County and Martinsville school systems, saying it preferred to focus on improving the existing system and that its members believed lobbying was outside their area of expertise.


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