Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Vocational Education have gone far beyond the hopes of superintendent Donna Peterson in the past three months, turning what could have been just another forum for complaints into a foundation for a whole new entity dedicated to protecting and expanding career education options for students across the peninsula.
But just because the community members decided to take such a task upon themselves doesn't mean the school district itself got out of the hot seat.
During the initial two days of task force meetings in December, representatives from area industries and community groups identified a number of shortcomings in the district's approach to maintaining career and technical education in schools.
And the district took the feedback seriously.
Last Tuesday, Peterson and other administrators reported to task force members that several preliminary changes already are under way in the district -- and plans are in the works for even more.
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One of the task force's primary complaints in December was that industries and community groups didn't know who to talk to at the district about vocational education programs.
In response, the district revamped the job description for Sam Stewart, the director of secondary education curriculum and assessment to cover all vocational education programs.
"The last three months have been busy for me," Stewart told task force members last Tuesday. "I've been trying to figure out what is involved and how to make improvements."
Stewart said one of his main tasks in the past three months has been finding a way to get better information to students.
With the help of other district staff, Stewart found and adapted a career education curriculum that could fit the district.
The curriculum, based on one written for the Cedar Falls School District in Cedar Falls, Iowa, establishes a systematic method to provide career exposure and training to all students in kindergarten through 12th grade by identifying standards and activities for each grade level.
"We already do a lot of this," Stewart said. "But nowhere was it pulled all together."
The new curriculum is easily laid out for teachers to follow and includes a strong focus on accountability, making sure all students are exposed, he said.
"This is only a draft form, but at some point we will be bringing it to the school board," Stewart said.
Another important aspect of exposing students to job and education options comes in the form of career counseling, task force members said.
Currently, many middle and high school counselors spend their time in administrative or teaching activities. Several are only part-time counselors who teach classes half the day. Many also handle the scheduling for their schools.
To some extent, that situation will change next year, Peterson said.
Due to staff cuts, many schools will move to a common schedule to facilitate staff and resource sharing. That means district administrators can take over scheduling duties, she said.
However, those staff cuts also mean there will be only two full-time counselors in the district next year. The rest will spend at least half their days teaching classes, she said.
However, what time these people do spend in a counseling capacity will be revamped to focus heavily on career guidance, Peterson and Stewart said.
Stewart said he has met with the district's counselors in the past three months to discuss the new role and they responded favorably.
"It's something they're excited about," he said. "The counselors see it as preferable to what they're doing now, but somebody has to do those things."
Peterson said that as the new face of the district shapes up for the fall, the role of counselors will be a primary focus.
"We're trying to get very clear and specific about what counselors are working on," she said. "We've got to pay attention to career and guidance."
Though the district is looking at limited resources in the future, it is interested in expanding some existing programs that already work well for many students.
One is the Kenai Central High School job shadow program, which allows each 11th-grader to spend a day with a professional in the community to learn more about the "real world" and a field in which they are interested. That program is heralded as a success by educators, students and community members alike, Stewart said.
"I would like all schools to have some type of job shadow program in the future," he said. Since the district already has a working model for how to establish and run such a program, it could be expanded without having to "reinvent the wheel."
Another existing program is the Workforce Development Center, which is undergoing a name change to be called the Workforce Development Program.
The program provides several afternoon and evening courses for students interested in pursuing training beyond the normal high school requirements, said program coordinator Dale Moon.
The district partners with Kenai Peninsula College to offer courses in computer programming, process industries technology and health care for students around the central peninsula.
"One of the reasons it works is because we do have industry buy-in right now," Moon said, explaining that partnerships between the district, KPC and area businesses allow high school students access to experienced teachers and hands-on training.
But, Moon added, "We need more from industries."
He said the district already is working to expand program offerings, trying to add certification for emergency medical technicians and certified nursing assistants.
The district also is hoping to broadcast appropriate classes to other parts of the peninsula via video teleconferencing so students in Homer, Seward or more rural areas have the program options as well.
Finally, Moon said the district hopes to expand its partnerships -- likely through the Kenai Peninsula World Class Workforce Coalition -- to work more closely with the Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward, community groups and other untapped industries to provide even more training for students.
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