Do Wisconsin high schools pass the career test?

July 16, 2012

From “Do Wisconsin high schools pass the career test?” — A wide-ranging group of lawmakers, business leaders and educators begins work Monday to answer a central question: Does Wisconsin’s education system do enough to develop the career skills of high-schoolers?

Rep. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) launched the group, officially known as the Special Committee on Improving Educational Opportunities in High School, to focus on opportunities offered to high-schoolers entering a challenging economy. Its first meeting is Monday in Madison.

“Right now, I want to get the conversation going,” he said.

The committee will look into three areas relating to high school education:

Current options available to high school students for ca reer and technical education and postsecondary enrollment, including the Youth Options program, which allows certain high school juniors and seniors to take college classes and also receive high school credit.

How those options compare with other states.

Ways that high schools, technical colleges, universities and employers can work together to meet the state’s workforce needs.

Committee member Mark Tyler said he would like to see the committee highlight the best practices already existing in the state.

“Because people don’t know about these opportunities, they expect that they are not there, and that’s just not the case,” said Tyler, a University of Wisconsin System regent and president of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board.

New London schools Superintendent Bill Fitzpatrick is already making changes at New London High School, which is in the process of shifting to a new model in which students are grouped into academies focused on particular career groups.

The change isn’t aimed at forcing students to make career choices early, but to put academic studies into a more real-world context.

Fitzpatrick said he is looking forward to the group’s discussion and said it is time to think futuristically about education.

“It’s time that we go back and take a look at a system that was set up for another time,” Fitzpatrick said.

Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), chair of the committee, and Farrow circulated a letter to the other members in advance of Monday’s meeting asking them to consider what issues are the most important in determining whether high school graduates have the skill sets to make their next steps.

“Just asking those questions is really important,” said committee member Bill Hughes, director of leadership development at Schools That Can Milwaukee, a nonprofit geared toward networking schools and improving school quality in impoverished areas.

Diverse group

Hughes, former superintendent of the Greendale School District, said he is optimistic about what the committee can accomplish, particularly because of the people involved. He said the members are a good mix of rural, urban and suburban voices. More important, Hughes said, the members will bring a reform perspective, rather than just trying to work around the edges of the system.

“At least we’re going to hear different perspectives,” Hughes said.

Hughes said he is interested in finding out how many students return to technical colleges after getting a four-year degree. The committee should look for ways to help those students get the right skills earlier so they don’t have to go back to school, he said.

On the agenda for Monday’s meeting are speakers from the state Department of Workforce Development, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and ManpowerGroup. Tim Sullivan, special consultant for business and workforce development to Gov. Scott Walker, will also speak.

Stronger connections

More needs to be done to build stronger connections between schools and employers, said Suzanne Kelley, a committee member and president of the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

Kelley hopes to bring an employer perspective to the committee. She said the needs of employers, particularly in manufacturing, have evolved, noting the industry has become more high-tech. Kelley is hopeful the committee can work to find ways to reintroduce technical arts classes into high schools.

Helping more students earn college credit while in high school is an area UW-Waukesha Dean Harry Muir said he would like the committee to consider.

“It’s like having a scholarship, if you think about it,” Muir said.

He said colleges and universities should collaborate with the K-12 system to help students discover their interests earlier, perhaps even shifting some general education and liberal arts classes into high school.

About the committee

The Special Committee on Improving Educational Opportunities in High School is one of seven study committees taking on issues during the period between legislative sessions. Early in 2012, the staff of the Joint Legislative Council asks legislators to submit topics for possible study. Once the ideas are collected, the co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Council – currently Sen. Mary Lazich (R- New Berlin) and Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) – select topics to study.


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