Forming alliances: Group looks at education options

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

There's a new force in town working to enhance education for Kenai Peninsula students.

A group of 27 community leaders -- including representatives from agencies such as the state departments of Labor and Education, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Kenai Peninsula College, area small businesses and unions and state government -- gathered Monday and Tuesday at the Kenai Merit Inn for the school district's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Vocational Edu-cation.

The district's all-call task force was designed to bring together community members interested in evaluating and revamping the district's -- and community's -- approach to vocational education.

According to representatives at the meeting, only about 25 percent of peninsula youth complete a four-year degree after high school. The rest go on to job training or straight into the work force.

However, the players at the table this week maintained that the district's educational system does not address the needs of the noncollege track majority.

Students need more options, said Robert Buch, an organizer with Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 367.

"They may not all become college educated, but we need people to have skills if we're going to create an economy," he said.

"College is great. It should always be considered," agreed Marty Anderson, president of U.S. Alaska Quality Services. "But when you work on large projects, you need engineers with four- or six-year degrees and you also need people in the field.

"It's like an ecosystem. If the plankton dies, the whales aren't far behind."

That's not to say the group members wanted to do away with the current academic offerings or stop preparing students for college; they simply wanted to go a step further in preparing students for life in general.

"The average person makes five career changes in a lifetime, and that's not counting the job changes along the way," said Harry Lockwood, a member of the state Department of Labor's vocational council. "If they are better educated as a whole, they will be better prepared for those changes."

The question, though, was how to go about improving students' education -- especially in light of severe budget constraints at the district level.

"I keep hearing that we've got a problem," said Superintendent Donna Peterson. "I've looked through years and years and years of paper, and I'm not sure we have the answers. But we do have a problem.

"We need to make sure we get it fixed or decide consciously that we can't fix it."

Giving up was not a solution the group had in mind, though.

Throughout the two days, members discussed the definition of vocational education, the challenges area programs face, the resources already available in the community and the importance of training students for life.

Then, they took action.

The solution, they decided, was to develop a program that exposes students to a variety of career options throughout their school years and provides basic life-skills and vocational training in addition to basic reading, writing and math skills.

In theory, teachers and guest speakers would build career option awareness for students through elementary school. In middle school, the program would focus on expectations for the working world and time to explore different industry and career fields in depth. Then, in high school, students would develop a plan for their education and begin basic vocational skills classes to help them work toward post-secondary education or certification programs.

The whole program hinges on a connection between schools and the community, though. And that's where the new Kenai Peninsula World Class Work Force Coalition comes in.

Members of the task force came up with the idea for the coalition and signed up to work on a steering committee in the coming months to make the coalition a reality.

The coalition would be a three-pronged entity linking education, business and industry and the community, bringing together resources such as speakers, vocational teachers, internships and mentors. The coalition also will be responsible for educating the public about the value of the broad-based education program and raising money to sustain the program.

Just what the coalition will look like is not yet certain. The steering committee's first priorities are to hire a contact person between the school district and area agencies and to develop and implement a marketing plan for the coalition concept.

"Looking around the room with this level of expertise and resources, I expect we would be able to do something significant to bring world class vocational education programs to all students," said Fred Esposito with AVTEC in Seward.

"We have the players in this room," Peterson agreed.

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