BY JOYCE LOBECK, Yuma County Chamber of Commerce
Unusual is the 7th- or 8th-grader who knows what he or she wants to be when they grow up and is on a committed path toward that goal. That's even more often the case when it comes to children who come from lower-income families, students who probably don't have access to career information that opens up the possibilities to them.
That's about to change for two middle schools in Yuma Elementary School District 1, Gila Vista and Fourth Avenue junior high schools, through a project slated to get off the ground with the start of the new semester. It's a schedule that has supporters on a fast track to get it going. But they have help.
They have the model and support of the Middle School Career Exploration Project that was developed through the Arizona Business Education Coalition, a non-partisan, statewide organization that brings together business, education and community leaders to support public education in Arizona.
The goal of the project is to provide activities to middle school students with the help of the business community that will lead to the discovery and nurturing of job opportunities and the connection of education to the real world of the workplace. Through this discovery, students are encouraged to select appropriate coursework and training, putting themselves on the path to success, explained Debra Raeder, vice president of project development for ABEC.
"We know from data that middle school students don't know what they want to do or what learning they will need for potential careers," she said. "We want to expose them younger to the possibilities by interacting with people who can help them."
This career readiness project is a model for business and education to partner to meet the shared goal of preparing students to ultimately enter and succeed in the workforce. "It helps students understand what jobs are available and how to qualify for them … develop that pipeline of workers," Raeder said.
The ABEC middle school project formally began in 2012 with a federal grant administered by Northern Arizona University. To date it has been implemented in three school districts in Maricopa County and one school district in Pinal County. ABEC is now working to expand this project into more schools around the state, including Yuma County, Raeder said, adding that she is thrilled with the interest in Yuma.
The project was introduced to local business, education and community leaders during a meeting in November organized by Yuma County School Superintendent Thomas Tyree, who is vice president of the ABEC board. Those attending represented a cross section of the community from banking and business to agriculture, construction, health care, military, education and City of Yuma police and fire departments.
"Everyone I asked showed up and participated," said Tyree, whose office will serve as the hub to implement the project in Yuma County. Part of his role is to produce a list of community partners willing to go into the schools to provide hands-on experiences to the kids. Also needed are in-kind resources such as construction materials and financial support.
"It's a win for the community," Tyree said. "Yuma Police Department needs people who want to become police officers. The same with firefighters. The same with construction and health care. They all need skilled workers."
Paul Brierley, executive director of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, is hopeful the project also will encourage students to pursue careers in agriculture, Yuma County's No. 1 industry.
"Many students - and many adults for that matter - see agriculture as an old and dying industry, consisting of hand labor and tractor driving," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Agriculture today offers careers in biotech, laboratory science, genetics, plant breeding, sensors, big data analytics, remote sensing with drones and satellites, and so much more."
He sees the project helping bridge that gap to tomorrow's workforce. "By partnering with agricultural businesses, the students will be exposed to the myriad of exciting career opportunities within agriculture and hopefully chart a course that prepares them to enter that workforce. After all, Yuma County is in the top 1 percent of counties nationwide when it comes to agriculture. The opportunities are endless for those that prepare!"
Data shows that learning seems to level off or even decline in middle school, said Tyree. It's the age when adolescence hits but also, he suggested, "we're not engaging them."
He noted that since World War II, there's been an emphasis on getting more students to go to college. "I would never discourage someone from going to college but there are great careers without it. That's why I'm a strong advocate for career and technical education. We think this is a good place to start."
It's a short window to get the project ready for the start of the spring semester in January, he acknowledged, "but we have ABEC resources. We can adapt what they have to what is best for our schools and community. We'll get the program up and running and build on it. I think there will be some real opportunities for Yuma." The principals of the two schools selected for the pilot project are looking forward to its implementation.
Jose Cazares, principal of Fourth Avenue Junior High School, is happy the project will bring opportunities to his students. Noting that the school serves a lower-income area where students may not be exposed to career choices, he said: "the kids will have an opportunity to explore what the real world is like and maybe get going on a career."
Thad Dugan, principal of Gila Vista Junior High School, noted that several industrial programs such as wood working and drafting no longer are offered at the school due in part to budget constraints. Therefore, he said, "I'm excited to be part of the project and the opportunity to do more things for students."
He anticipates the project will result in better outcomes for students while also meeting the workforce needs of the business community. It's a win-win for everyone."
John Courtis, executive director of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce, agrees. "We want to create the next generation of workers … people ready to fill the gaps in the workforce. To me this is a perfect example of what a public-private partnership looks like as far as education is concerned. Educators think this what we need to be doing. People are saying 'yes, this what we need.' The chamber completely supports it." He said the top 25 percent of middle school students "are set for life … perfect home life, college bound, prepped for success." The middle 50 percent "will do fine, they have a decent shot."
The bottom 25 percent are caught in a cycle of poverty. "They don't see themselves as successful. If we can get them thinking about possibilities, in my mind it will be transformational.
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