Task: Group up Kenai Peninsula business leaders with area educators to put their heads together and figure out how to better prepare students for the workforce in seven hours.
An exercise in futility?
It may have sounded like it from the outset, but by the end of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Employer Summit, held Thursday at the Challenger learning Center in Kenai, a few answers were actually reached.
Two clear needs were established at the meeting that included placing a stronger emphasis on getting kids out of high school with "soft skills" - quite literally, the skills to think and work with people - and strengthening the partnership between the district and area businesses.
The school district invited employers from around the Peninsula to the round table-style discussions with district administrators, teachers and students to review the results of an employer survey that was circulated through out the region by the district over the past few months.
The summit attendees were divided into six groups, organized loosely by profession, and charged with not just talking about issues, but also looking at how to address them in the classroom. The group's ideas were then presented toward the end of the day.
While there were perhaps endless directions the conversations could have gone in, and indeed the dialogs and the ideas discussed by each group varied, the conclusions they presented all had a similar feel to them.
Employers repeatedly stressed that they needed workers with "soft skills."
Ryan Kapp, a Financial Advisor at Edward Jones in Soldotna, served both as the moderator of the event and as a business representative.
"Whether it's punctuality, or professionalism or problem solving, critical thinking or listening skills; it's hard to teach that as a class content, but it's critical," Kapp said.
Employers stressed that hard skills can be trained, but that the basic skills needed to be in place when students left schools.
The second point that came out of the meeting - developing a stronger tie between businesses and educators - was not unrelated to the first.
Businesses owners were more than willing to find ways to show students how what they did in school connected to what goes on in the working world.
"All the business owners in here without exception were raising their hands saying, 'I'll come into the school, I'll take an intern, I'll take a career exploration guy,'" Kapp said. "So it's there, it's just a matter of wrapping your arms around it and creating those relationships and making the format work."
This was set off in part by the presence of student representatives in every group who served as a "reality check," to speak to the needs they saw at the ground level.
Students suggested that they needed opportunities like mentorships, job shadowing experiences and chances to relate what they saw on the blackboard with what was happening outside of school.
In a word, students said they needed motivation.
Angie Parrish, a senior at Nikiski High School, and Maggie Fleming, a junior at Seward High, said they both believed the resources were there in the schools for students to succeed, but they needed a push.
"It's just that they have to have the people around them, the mentors to help them do it and be, like, you can do it," Parrish said. "Students, they don't want to be taught something and then not make any connections."
While the district wasn't concerned with figuring out the mechanics of making these types of improvements by the end of the say, the summit offered the business leaders a view into the world of educators.
"I think it was probably a learning curve for everyone today, on both sides of the fence," Kapp said.
For Steve Atwater, superintendent for the district, the event was a good first step.
He saw, however, possibilities for incorporating some of the soft skills that employers were asking for into the curriculum.
He said he saw the value of having those skills emphasized not just in one class at one grade level but through out the entire educational experience, too.
Atwater said he thought the district did well preparing students to be learners, especially at the elementary level, but that the focus placed on social skills fades after that.
In the future, Atwater said he also wanted to systemize the way schools connect with business leaders.
"I think we can formalize that process so we have that umbrella outreach and have a liaison role rather than having a principal by chance grab people," he said. "The district's never played that role, it's been completely in the principals hands to do that."
Atwater said the event was a good start, but he would have liked to have seen more participation from businesses.
"The return was not what I wanted and I didn't get as much of a return on the survey either," he said. "It would have been better to get a deeper cut."
He said he still wanted to get a better sense of what the desires out there are.
"I can't make the statement that this is what the community wants, I didn't get a big enough sample to do that," he said.
Dante Petri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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