Public education needs to make adjustments

Public education needs to make adjustments if it’s going to successfully prepare students to thrive in the 21st-century workforce after graduation.

That was the buzz discussed among business and education leaders gathered Dec. 5 at the Davis Theatre for the 2014 Education Summit, sponsored by the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Nearly 100 people – including school board members, county officials, educators and students – listened as seven experts described ways schools could better equip students for a work environment that’s different from that of even a generation ago.

With STEM-related businesses beginning to burgeon both locally and in the nation, most speakers agreed students would need more specialized training, earlier work experience and stronger backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math than ever before.

“It’s not like it was in 2003 or 1999 or even in the ’70s,” said David Hollars, executive director of the Centralina Workforce Development Board. “It’s a totally different situation.”

No county knows that better than Cabarrus, which saw its workforce change from line workers with looms to scientists in labs when textile giant Pillowtex Corp. closed its doors in 2003, resulting in the largest mass layoff in North Carolina history.

The mill’s closing left thousands unemployed and many unprepared to work outside a textile factory, where a basic high school diploma was usually all they had needed to get a job back then.

In the years afterward, the old mill was razed to make room for the North Carolina Research Campus, a thriving biotechnology and life science compound now bustling with innovative research projects that focus on nutrition and disease.

“It’s no longer enough just to be a high school graduate,” said Barry Shepherd, superintendent of Cabarrus County Schools. Graduates, he said, need something more, such as industry certifications in the new and emerging fields driving the U.S. economy.

The Cabarrus school system has responded by placing specialized academies within its high schools. This fall, three new academies were launched: the Academy of Public Safety at Concord High, the Academy of Information Technology at Cox Mill High, and the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism at Hickory Ridge High.

Next year, the district will offer three additional academies: the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing at Jay M. Robinson High, the Academy of Energy and Sustainability at Mount Pleasant High, and the Academy of Health Science and Biotechnology at Northwest Cabarrus High.

Although the programs currently are offered only to students within those school boundaries, Shepherd anticipates one day they will be available to any student in the district.

Besides curriculum changes, other speakers pushed the need for more workplace experience during the school year.

Pam Cain, superintendent of Kannapolis City Schools, spent last summer in Germany with other educators, learning about the country’s dual education system.

Students in Germany begin working early – around age 14 – in specialized tracks that place them in apprenticeships and other work environments.

The relationship between business mentors and students, said Cain, benefits both.

One successful work-based learning program, run through a BMW plant in Germany, involves a student-run branch that mirrors the company’s structure. Not only did the students pick up crucial experience in roles from president to human resources positions, but they netted a $1 million profit for the car maker last year.

Cain said similar opportunities between local businesses and students could provide the same results.

“We’re really at a turning point,” said Cain, “if we have any hope of succeeding in our businesses, in this economy, and even in the way of life as we know it.”