Arkansan educators are rethinking what it means to succeed.
At the the annual conference Thursday of the University of Arkansas' Office of Education Policy, educators from across the state discussed "the forgotten half" of students who do not go on to college after high school and how to help those students succeed.
Gary Ritter, the director of the Office of Education Policy, said many schools focus on preparing their students to enroll in a four-year college after high school, losing sight of those students who will go straight into the workforce.
"If we act as if four-year college is the only way to go, we're clearly neglecting a large fraction of our kids," he said.
Ritter said many secondary schools don't place much importance on career- and technical-education courses because they are associated with lower expectations and are sometimes looked down upon.
But midlevel skills, the kind that are developed in care- and technical-education courses, are in demand in Arkansas and around the country, said Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.
"We literally have thousands of jobs that are unfilled," he said. "We have embraced the idea of the need for college degrees, but everyone doesn't need a four-year degree."
Mary Ann Shope, vice president for learning at Pulaski Technical College, said skilled workers such as electricians and welders make good wages and their jobs are often recession-proof.
They also don't have thousands of dollars in student loans to pay off as do many four-year college graduates, she said.
One way educators are working to improve career- and technical-education courses and get students workforce-ready is by creating partnerships with local businesses so that the students will have the skills necessary to get jobs that already exist in their communities.
Errin James, an Arkansas Works career coach who works with students at Augusta High School, said his school is starting to develop partnerships with local factories.
"The biggest thing I'm taking away today is to bring better partnerships between the local businesses and the high school to get more input from manufacturers so our kids after high school will be ready to go straight to work," he said.
Arkansas Works is a state program that helps people get ready for jobs.
Thursday's conference also included presentations from groups that are trying to increase the number of students who go to college by working with those who would not traditionally consider pursuing higher education.
Razor C.O.A.C.H. is a program that places career coaches in 15 Northwest Arkansas high schools to help students figure out what path to take after high school. A big part of the program is helping students navigate applications for college, financial aid and scholarships.
"FAFSA is one none of my students had any experience with or knowledge of," said career coach Taylor Scott, referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, frequently referred to as FAFSA for short. "All of my students this year are first generation."
This year the program took more than 150 students and parents to visit the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville because most of them had never been on a college campus before.
Razor C.O.A.C.H. is modeled after Arkansas Works, which serves 28 counties and 51 school districts.
Gabriel Fotsing -- founder and chief executive officer of The College Initiative, a program that helps students in the Delta region apply to and succeed in college -- said that while many students do not know much about how to get to college, they have the potential to succeed once they get there.
"A lot of our students are very talented. They just need that guidance for the transition from high school to college," he said.
Some school districts across the country are targeting these nontraditional college students through early-college programs, which allow students to earn their high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time.
Caesar Mickens, director of Early College Designs at Jobs for the Future, said at the conference that Jobs for the Future's Early College High School Initiative is an effective way to help disadvantaged students get prepared to enter either the workforce or a four-year college after high school.
"We really concentrate on first-generation college students, low-income students, minority students," he said.
Ritter, the Office of Education Policy's director, said there are currently no high schools in Arkansas that follow the same model as Jobs for the Future, which is a nonprofit working in 25 states to move low-income youths and adults into higher-wage jobs.
Mickens said middle- and upper-class students typically have parents who motivate them to push themselves academically, while students in the groups his organization targets often do not.
Mickens said 20 percent of students who attend early-college high schools obtain associate degrees by the time they receive their diplomas, and 21 percent of students obtain a college degree within a year.
For students who wish to continue their education after high school, the early-college model helps them adjust to the rigor and culture of college, Mickens said.
Ritter said he hopes that hearing about different approaches to the problems facing Arkansas schools will get educators thinking.
"The idea is to bring people together to discuss a common problem and discuss varying solutions to that problem and perhaps ideas will stick with some people," he said.
Metro on 05/16/2014