May 6, 2019

There is much conversation in today’s educational communities about providing improved choices for students within our public schools. Student choice can most easily be stated as providing students with opportunities to find their passion and prepare them for post-secondary life; whether that be immediately entering the workforce, attending technical training, joining the military, or pursuing higher education. I would like to turn the conversation to how do we provide “choice” within our public schools.

First, we must address the solution most debated. Much of the state and national rhetoric is that parents want choices for their students. Consequently, legislators are searching for ways to offer this choice through vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, etc. What is missing from this line of thinking is the premise that those “choices” will be available for ALL. What they really produce is a financial savings, or a new option, for those who already have the finances and/or motivation to send their child to a private school. It is not a “choice” for those who do not have adequate transportation, or who do not fit the qualifications of the school. In many cases it creates economic segregation. For example, the Missouri Senate continues to debate SB292, a bill that would expand charter schools. This article is not to discuss the merits of other forms of schools, but to serve as a quick review of how the national narrative is important for perspective.

So given what we know parents and legislators want, how do we produce these options within the public school setting? Number One, we must be forward thinkers who shift away from the Industrial Revolution model of schooling. Number Two, we must partner with community businesses, colleges and organizations to tap into their expertise, needs and resources (not necessarily financial resources, but on-site training areas, industry-specific training, and manpower). Number Three, we need to create purpose-driven, innovative, organic learning experiences that allow students to develop essential skill sets and mindsets that will prepare them for a career in their field of interest. Schools are no longer needed just to teach facts and prepare students for college. In addition, schools should no longer be focused only on “their” students. We have excellent neighboring schools in Cuba, Owensville, Rolla, and Steelville… to name just a few. Our goal should be to grow programs that benefit all students and only require community partners to deal with one point person rather than having a separate program for each school.

We are putting pieces in place that will allow us to begin really digging into what “choice” opportunities are right for St. James. Let me give some examples. More and more of our high school teaching staff are obtaining the credentials to teach dual credit courses and we are now beginning Advanced Placement (AP) opportunities. Dual credit provides multiple opportunities for our students to simultaneously obtain high school and college credits.  AP courses provide college credit which will be accepted virtually anywhere. Not only do these programs provide credit opportunities, but the advanced level of learning is designed to allow students to fast forward into their future. Our internship and externship programs are being developed and improved to better work with many of our local businesses to help train and prepare our students in their fields of expertise. These programs help our students to be fully immersed in a professional culture, solving real world problems, using industry standard tools and through these experiences, our students are mentored by actual employers, all while receiving high school and college credit. This is an opportunity for students to learn and work in an actual business environment, including but not limited to, healthcare, construction, manufacturing, etc.

What about students who want a more challenging path? We are adding Marketing courses into our high school schedule for the 2019-2020 school year. This is yet another opportunity for our students which could develop into additional internships. We are beginning to provide Project Lead the Way (PLTW) courses which are precursors for engineering, medicine, architecture, etc. What about students who learn in different ways? We have a very successful program at the Rolla Technical Institute where students receive certifications that employers in those fields require. Fields such as: Agriculture Education, Automotive Technology, Collision Repair, Construction, Culinary Arts, Design, Drafting, Early Childhood, Fire & Rescue/EMT, Service Careers, Health Science, HVACR, Information Technology, Marketing, Masonry, Engineering, and Wood Manufacturing & Design. What if students are hands-on learners and want to discover through creativity and problem solving? We have the aforementioned opportunities at RTI AND in our own Wood Shop, Agriculture, Metals, and Business programs. We are also creating multiple project-based-learning opportunities. What about having year-long programs within our system? The possibilities are endless, but we have to be willing to dream it, and we have to be willing to take risks.

As we work to build toward the future, if you are a business who needs a trained workforce, or a community organization that wants to see St. James and Central Missouri continue to thrive, I hope you will consider partnering with us on this journey. I believe we can provide incredible “choices” for our publicly educated students right here in St. James, Missouri.