School district, industries ready to revamp voc-ed

Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2003

A plan to revive the role of vocational education in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is off and running, thanks to the efforts of a group of community members.

The district's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Vocational Education met last Tuesday to follow up on progress from plans made at the group's initial two-day meeting in December.

And unlike with some task forces, the group members found their conversations have led to plenty of action.

The task force was formed by the school district late last year to address the state of vocational -- or career and technical -- education in area schools.

Dire budget constraints limit the district's ability to provide such classes, and new national legislation offers little support for the curriculum.

Nonetheless, representatives from the district, area industries and other community groups said they see such training as imperative for students. Only about 25 percent of high school freshmen in the district go on to earn a four-year college degree, said school board member Al Poindexter.

In addition, task force members noted that the forthcoming mass exodus of baby-boomer generation workers will leave a gaping hole in the area work force in the next five years.

That means schools and industries cannot afford to let career training go by the wayside, regardless of budget constraints, task force members said.

It also means the district and area industries need to work together to make sure students get a broad-based education and industries have a viable selection of workers in the coming years.

At the December meeting, the task force members recognized a number of needs in the area, including better career counseling and exposure to options for middle and high school students, more organization or resources and cooperation between schools and businesses. They came up with an idea to form the Kenai Peninsula World Class Workforce Coalition dedicated to continuing career and technical education options for area students.

And in the three months since the meeting, the ideas have started to become a reality.

For one thing, the school district has responded to the feedback from the December meeting by making a number of preliminary changes to address needs identified by the task force.

But even more importantly, the ephemeral idea of the coalition is on its way to becoming a solid entity.

The Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District appropriated $25,000 earlier this year to contract Joe Donahue, sole proprietor of JD's Professional Assistants, to establish the basis of the coalition.

Donahue, who attended the meeting last week, said it's a big job -- especially since his contract only extends through June 30.

But, he said, with a little work, it is possible.

"I have a list of the tasks I'm supposed to perform," he said. "The bottom line is two things: 1) to form a coalition between you folks and other key players, and 2) to help you focus where you're going, what is the system and what is the action plan."

To that end, Donahue listened to task force members reiterate their frustrations with the lack of a comprehensive career education system in schools and their ideas for solving the problem. He will be responsible for collating these ideas into a cohesive form, drafting and distributing memoranda of understanding between the interested parties -- including area educators, businesses, government representatives, nonprofits and community groups -- and developing a marketing plan for the coalition's philosophy.

He also may end up having a hand in developing funding sources for the coalition, though former Sen. John Torgerson currently is heading up that effort.

Torgerson's idea is to establish a municipal vocational education authority at the borough level, funded by a .2 percent mill rate.

Though he said he doesn't know exactly how the money would be spent, ideas include providing scholarships, offering particular classes through the school district and supporting students' efforts to continue their vocational training during the high school years.

Torgerson has drafted a resolution to establish the municipal authority and soon will start collecting signatures to get the resolution on the October ballot.

Another possible funding source would be participating businesses and industries. Task force members said they hope to see more commitment to education in the form of financial backing.

But Colleen Ward, a member of the Kenai Peninsula Process Industries Career Consortium, said while funding is important, that's not the overall goal of the coalition.

She said she sees the coalition as a clearinghouse, a place or group that coordinates community resources, from funding sources to volunteers to program ideas.

"It's not a lot of people; it's not a place," she said. "It's a clearinghouse, so that everyone who graduates knows where to go."

"Right now, (vocational education) is unmandated, unfunded, unaligned and unassigned," she said. "What we're trying to do here is assign it. We know we're all stretched to the max, but unless it's assigned, we're not going to have it. This is the body that brings it all together."

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