In 1983 a book titled “A Nation at Risk” was published about a study that showed U.S. graduates were falling behind the rest of the world, which began the push for education to send more children to college.
After 30 years of changes to the education system, especially under the Bush administration with the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts like Black River Falls are building on their tradition of career and technical education curriculum to develop individualized paths for students whether that be career planning or college readiness.
“What happened is that in the education world as well as the political world, that translated into we need to get kids into college, we need to send more kids to college. What we found though is that essentially the numbers stayed about the same as far as kids that actually completed a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. In Black River Falls and in the nation it is about 30 percent and it has been there for a long time,” Black River Falls High School principal Tom Chambers said.
“For those 30 years since then, we (as a nation) have kind of in many ways neglected that 70 percent of the population,” he said. “A lot of them actually went to four-year colleges, but didn’t complete. So then they are coming back and looking at getting into the workforce, but then they don’t have a credential because they have two years at a four-year college. They didn’t have a completion to show for that.”
In this national culture, companies like Regal, which manufactures small engines in Black River Falls, have taken on the responsibilities of doing most of the employee training.
“I would say it is under 10 percent of our applicants come with some education or prior work experience that would be relevant to those types of positions,” Regal human resources manager Reva Witte said about specialized positions like machinists. “Most of our positions are strictly on-the-job training. We can hire somebody that has had no manufacturing experience and provide all of the necessary training once they are here on the job.”
It is for these reasons that Black River Falls School District is focusing even more today on students that don’t plan to go to college, adding to programs like work study that are already a huge part of some student’s education.
Connecting students with employers
Aaron Wood is a recent Black River Falls graduate that works at Regal in the assembly department. His first professional encounter with Regal was at a career fair hosted by the school.
“That one day I knew it was mandatory and I knew Regal was there. My mom happens to work here and told me that Regal was going to be there and to just look for them,” Wood said. “So I applied here and got the job.”
Hosting a yearly career fair is one of many initiatives Black River Falls is using to connect students with possible employers.
“I think that part of our workforce solution has to come from a better relationship between employers, parents and schools so that we are graduating kids who have more of a career path in mind as they are coming out of high school rather than, ‘Ok, so what am I going to do now?’” Black River Country Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chris Hardie said.
A recent law passed in Wisconsin requires schools to create a written plan for sixth through 12th-graders for their career goals after college, which is supposed to take effect in all schools in Wisconsin this school year. The program that houses these plans is called Career Cruising.
The 7 Rivers Alliance took this idea one step further and created an additional platform called Inspire that connects students and employers.
Hardie said Jackson County will test the Inspire program for the seven rivers region and the program will be rolled out to the entire region next year.
“It links local businesses to the Career Cruising platform, allowing businesses to connect with students and students to connect to businesses right in their local area so that as students start to explore their future plans and their future careers, the local businesses that are connected through this platform, their information will show up to those students and the students can start to make connections to the businesses,” Chambers said.
Connecting with students and getting them interested in manufacturing jobs is one of the reasons Regal participates in high school career fairs and is joining the Inspire program.
“One of the things that I have seen in speaking with some high school students is I would just encourage them to being open to manufacturing as a career path. I don’t know that we always think about all of the opportunities that a career in manufacturing may provide us, so yes you may begin working on an assembly line or working at a machine and you may not see yourself in that position for the next 20 years, but there are a lot of support positions and office positions that might be along that path for the right candidate, but they just need to get their foot in the door,” Witte said.
On top of testing the Inspire program and being a part of the Career Cruising platform, Black River Falls High School is also making this resource a part of its daily schedule.
“What we are able to do at the high school level is we have an adviser period at the beginning of every day where our students are with the same teacher for the four years that they are here, and they will be during that time actually logging into their Career Cruising accounts,” Chambers said.
This is all in an effort to stack credentials, as Chamber would call it.
“I say you think about what makes the most sense for you, and you start by getting as many credentials as you can and then you begin stacking those credentials on top of each other until you begin to feel like you are in the right position, are comfortable with the job you are doing and you are making the kind of money that is supporting the lifestyle you want,” Chambers said. “High school is not about getting ready for college … high school is about getting ready for life.”
Hardie and Chambers are looking for at least 50 businesses to sign-up for the Inspire program in Jackson County. Businesses can sign-up for the Inspire program at www.7riversalliance.org/inspire-7rivers/.
Redefining Ready moves forward at BRF
Not only is the district connecting more students with employers, it is also collecting career-focused data.
As a presentation to the school board, Black River Falls School District Superintendent Shelly Severson presented a new initiative in education called Redefining Ready, which aims to provide students a road map detailing what they need to accomplish in high school to achieve career success.
“I very much want all of our kids to be prepared for whatever their career goals are. If the highest ACT score is the most direct route to their future career success, then great. But for so many professions and career choices, your score on that one test really is not indicative of your future success,” Severson said.
Redefining Ready uses a list of indicators to helps students gauge what students need to do to achieve their idea of career success. If someone wants to go to college, Redefining Ready argues you should be taking advanced placement classes, completing Algebra II and have a GPA greater than a 2.8. For those that want to focus on being career ready, students should have a 90 percent attendance record, 25 hours of community service and a workplace learning experience.
Wood had a workplace experience on a farm, which he feels was the most important experience that prepared him for the working world.
“Just being more versatile and learning more things and getting to learn stuff faster so you don’t have to go back and keep asking questions. I just thought that helped me quite a bit,” Wood said. “I was out on a farm and it just taught me new mechanics almost every day because you never know when you are going to get new equipment in.”
Witte agrees that having workplace experiences are really great indicators that someone will be a good employee.
“I think especially if they have had restaurant or fast food experience. We’ve had a lot of luck with the younger generation that has had those experiences. It plays really well into manufacturing in terms of teamwork and working efficiently,” Witte said.
Severson said these indicators will not replace test scores, but will rather enhance them.
“It just looks at kids in a more holistic view as opposed to a one-day test that they sit down for between their junior and senior year. That is what I appreciate the most. It just is much more tangible data that they can impact on a daily basis that will help guide them toward success in whatever they choose after high school,” Severson said.
The board approved moving forward with collecting these additional data points.
“We definitely are going to move forward with measuring some of that stuff in our student records system. We currently don’t hold all of that in there, so I do want that data to be recordable because I think when we talk about us as an organization and education institution, we should know what percentage of our graduates already have college credits under their belt,” Severson said. “That is a data point we should know. I think that communicates value in education to our community.”
School board member Amy Hoffman agrees.
“One of the reasons I think a checklist can be helpful is because so many times we only look at grades as a measure of a kid’s ability to be successful,” she said. “You can have a valedictorian of a class go nowhere in life and somebody who would very much be considered an average student be wildly successful.”