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Work Begins at School

by James E. Casto

Photo Gallery
Photo of students in building trades construction

Too many of the nation's young people graduate from high school unequipped with the skills they will need to perform in today's modern, highly competitive job market. Often they flounder, ending up in unsatisfying, low-paying, dead-end jobs. At the same time, many employers report they are hard-pressed to find enough new workers who are adequately qualified for today's jobs.

Tackling both these problems—helping both students and employers—is what School-to-Work programs are all about. It's a new approach to learning that's taking hold in more and more of the nation's schools.

"It's based," says Jeff Krauklis, assistant superintendent of Clay County Schools and director of the Clay County School-to-Work Partnership in West Virginia, "on the concept that education works best, and is most useful, when students apply what they learn to real-life, real-work situations."

For Angela Fitzwater, a senior at Clay County High School, that means spending part of each school day at Clay's Primary Care Systems, where she escorts patients, files records, and, with patients' permission, sometimes gets to observe medical procedures such as electrocardiograms. It's a made-to-order assignment for Fitzwater, who says she plans to be a nurse. "This shows you what you've got to do and what you need to do to get there," she says.

Her classmate, Phillip Duffield, also feels he's getting a valuable jump start on his future. Duffield hopes to become a teacher, and so he's now working in the afternoons in a Head Start classroom near the high school campus. He helps the children with art projects and computer programs, and has even developed and taught a lesson plan on reading strategy. Head Start teacher Linda Harrison says Duffield is doing a great job. "I think he will be a wonderful teacher," she says.

Exploring Careers

Job assignments such as these are the logical conclusion of a School-to-Work program that begins in the elementary grades, where students explore careers; continues in grades 6 through 8 with field trips, job shadowing, and computer simulations; and culminates in grades 9 through 12 with students participating in work-based learning experiences.

Devising and operating a successful School-to-Work program in any school system is a challenge, but it's especially so in a county such as Clay, one of the poorest in West Virginia. The county has a low college-going rate. The school system itself is the largest employer in the county, followed by timbering and mining companies. The county has few jobs for adults, much less work-experience opportunities for young people.

Clay County Schools' workforce readiness program was established in 1998 with the help of a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which enabled the full-time employment of a School-to-Work coordinator. The work done on the program helped the Clay County School-to-Work Partnership win an Urban/Rural Opportunities Grant for Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities through the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education in October 1998. The $1.3 million Urban/Rural grant is spread over four years.

"We never could have won the Urban/Rural [grant] without the ARC funding that put everything in motion," says Krauklis. This funding, he says, has enabled the school system to continue its work-site program, which this year has nearly two dozen students placed in a variety of local work settings, including the courthouse, a bank, a supermarket, the health department, and the sheriff's office.

Clay County Schools School-to-Work Coordinator Anita Stephenson explains that students placed at a work site "perform a variety of tasks, such as answering the telephone, assisting the public with questions and providing help with purchases, entering information into a computer, filing papers, running errands, and answering mail. Critical elements of successful work-site placement are trust in the students and their willingness to accept responsibility."

However, the limited number of jobs available for students in the county has prompted the school system to initiate a number of school-based work enterprises, which enable students to get job experience without leaving the campus.

Each year, for example, students enrolled in Clay County High's building trades construction program build a modular house and sell it through nonprofit Clay Mountain Housing to a low-income family in the area. The house is then trucked away, and the money from its sale goes back into the program to buy materials for the next house.

"This is the fourth one that we've built," says carpentry teacher Brian Holcomb of the handsome three-bedroom, one-bath frame house taking shape on the school campus.

Two years ago, when the community received a $150,000 Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community grant to construct a community fitness center, the lowest bid from a private contractor was $480,000. Leaders instead gave the job to students in the high school's construction program, who built the center at a total cost of $120,000—and gained valuable job experience in the process. Now that the center is open, it's partly staffed by students interested in learning about physical-therapy and fitness-training careers.

Students also built a structure that houses the dressing rooms at the school's football field.

Hands-On Experience

Other Clay County High School students work in the school's Agricultural Science Department. The school built a for-profit greenhouse on campus (initially funded by a state School-to-Work grant and expanded through the Urban/Rural grant) and runs an aqua-culture/aquaponics center in it. Students do all the tasks involved in maintaining the systems and caring for the fish and plants growing there.

There's also a new student-operated school store, christened the Panther Pit, that stocks a variety of merchandise, including sweatshirts, hats, and other items emblazoned with the school's mascot, a snarling panther. Students who operate the store get valuable hands-on experience with retailing. Senior Melissa Koch, who works at the store during the lunch period each day, uses a handheld scanner, just like the ones used by clerks at department and discount stores, to ring up prices. The store sells items at a modest markup, then plows the profit back into the operation, making it self-sufficient.

And there's a student-run catering service, as well, that lets students learn a wide range of skills needed in the restaurant and food-service industry. Under the instruction of family and consumer sciences teacher Mistie McKown, students take classes in the basics of food preparation, table settings, room and seating arrangements, and other related topics, and provide catering services for events at the school and at off-campus sites. The program is based on the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation's ProStart school-to-career program curriculum. Students who successfully complete the coursework and log 400 hours of food-service preparation can take a National Restaurant Association test and graduate with a certificate that will help them land a job in the food-service industry.

In an unusual public/private venture, students work with a retired art teacher, Jerry Stover, to help publish volumes of local history. The first such compilation was undertaken in the nation's bicentennial year of 1976 as a school project. Subsequent volumes followed, with students writing family histories and other articles, then preparing the text and photographs for publication. When health problems forced Stover to take early retirement, he moved the operation off campus, setting it up as an independent publishing enterprise that serves as a work-site placement for Clay County High students who are interesting in writing or publishing careers.

Stover notes that when Dusty Bird, who spent two years working on the history book project, graduated and went looking for a job, "he took one of his books with him. Showing it, he got a job on the spot." Bird is now working at a Summersville motel as he saves for college, using his writing and publishing skills to help prepare the motel's promotional materials.

Another important part of the Clay County School-to-Work program involves computer simulations. The simulations, says Stephenson, give students "an opportunity to gain workplace processing skills such as teamwork and communication, as well as experience the broad concepts of a particular industry."

The Riverview Hotel program, for example, is a computer-based simulation that introduces students to the world of hotel management by giving them an opportunity to "work" in a hotel located in River City, a medium-sized city facing a typical array of social and economic issues. Students, working in teams of three or four, jointly assume the role of hotel manager. In a series of episodes, the students interact with members of the hotel staff and guests and are faced with making the kind of decisions that are frequently part of a busy workday.

Other simulations place students at work in a bank, a hospital, or a paper company.

Stephenson says students enjoy the computer simulations. Cathy Lambey and Stephanie Bird, both freshmen, confirm that fact and say they'd like to download the hotel simulation so they can take it home to use. (Copyright restrictions prevent that.)

In a related development, the Clay County School-to-Work Partnership and the West Virginia State College Community and Technical College have teamed up to offer college-level classes at Clay County High, thus affording high school students and adult learners alike an opportunity to jump start their college careers and get some credits under their belts. Day, night, and summer classes are offered.

The School-to-Work trend is not without its critics, who argue that it promotes vocational and technical training at the expense of a liberal arts education and that it forces youngsters to focus on a career choice too early. School-to-Work proponents counter that encouraging students to think about what they might like to do for a living, exposing them to practical experiences in those fields, and then letting them know what skills they will need to do those jobs makes school far more relevant and encourages students to study harder. Moreover, proponents say, School-to-Work helps students better understand the connection between learning in school and living productive lives.

James E. Casto is associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.