Workforce development for every Arkansas student

by Trish Flanagan ([email protected]) 1,097 views 

If I had 20 minutes with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, I would explain how we lift Arkansas out of poverty in two generations.

In Arkansas, we invest more than $150,000 in each public school student from kindergarten to 12th grade. As a nation, we spend more to educate our kids than most countries. And though we spend $300 billion a year on workforce development, the majority of employers across the country report “a lack of preparation with dire consequences, including economic underperformance, social unrest, and individual despair,” among employees.

We need to change from our “business as usual” thinking. We need every student in Arkansas to graduate prepared and motivated with three tangible tools: a resume of professional experience, a professional network, and access to a tuition-free college experience.

We invest heavily in money and time in public education for Arkansas’ students, yet we are missing an opportunity. We spend over half our state budget in education and our kids are required to spend 30 hours in “instruction time” at school each week. In 12th grade, students only need two classes to complete graduate requirements, leaving hours of time to develop their career options and skills each week. Yet, many of our high school graduates have no plan or experience to prepare them for a career based on their skills and interests.

Without career planning and experience upon graduation, tens of thousands of Arkansas jobs are empty and we are ranked one of the lowest states for employment according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. We talk about workforce development in every corner of Arkansas and we spend millions in programs for adults. But what are we doing to ensure that every single Arkansan is prepared and motivated to find employment they are passionate about and allows them to feed their families?

Our attempts to make high school more relevant and graduate more skilled workers are only serving a small percentage of Arkansans. More and more programs are popping up to equip small groups of students with technical skills. This is a great start, but we need to get out of the “college or career” mindset and graduate all our kids with a 21st century tool box that incorporates all of the above. We need to do this at the structural level of our high schools to ensure access to real skill development and experience is prioritized in our school budgets, professional development and school schedules. We need to develop our workforce earlier, when our students have time and are required to be in school. If we wait until they are adults and are juggling the needs of family and finance, it is often too late.

Interest-based internships need to be embedded in our core curriculum and required to graduate from high school. They must be aligned with student interest, otherwise, motivation to seek, maintain and continuously improve in careers will fall short. High school schedules need to be structured around real world learning opportunities, advising and college coursework. Campuses should mirror a 21st century learning environment where kids collaborate with each other and their teachers while building a professional network in their community.

Additionally, every high school student in Arkansas needs to have a trusted advisor who knows them well, meets with them daily and supports their career and future education plans. We spend millions on initiatives that will not successfully reach students in our current school structure. Most require a guidance counselor, with other priorities such as schedules and testing, to support a caseload of sometimes 300-500 students. To solve this challenge, we need our teachers to be recruited, trained, compensated and supported as advisors to a small family-like group of students.

Finally, our high school students should graduate with college experience at no cost. More 11th and 12th grade students should be accessing college coursework and graduating with associates degrees with tuition covered via existing public funding.

When we make high school more relevant and interesting for students in the 21st century, we will develop our workforce. We will rise out of poverty when every high school student in Arkansas graduates with a resume of interest-based professional experience, a professional network and college experience. We must take advantage of the opportunity in front of us.

Editor’s note: Trish Flanagan is a founder and former superintendent of the Future School of Fort Smith. The opinions expressed are those of the author.