career oriented

Newark looks to build school-to-work ‘pipeline’ by boosting vocational education

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Monique Baptiste-Good (left), vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, and Erin Sweeney, executive director of Schools That Can Newark, helped launch a new coalition devoted to expanding vocational education in Newark.

Newark has an employment problem — and the school district wants to help.

While more than half of jobs in the city pay more than $40,000 annually, just 10 percent of those jobs go to Newark residents. Instead, most Newarkers have lower-paying jobs, while about 8 percent are unemployed.

The mayor has targeted local employers, challenging them last year to hire 2,020 Newark residents by 2020. Now, the school system is focused on the other side of the equation: training workers.

“We can hire more Newark residents,” said interim schools Superintendent Robert Gregory, “but we need to make sure that they’re prepared for the positions that they step into.”

To do that, Newark Public Schools is looking to strengthen and expand its vocational programs — also called “career and technical education,” or CTE — that provide students with in-demand job skills and sometimes even college credit by the time they graduate high school. Many Newark high schools advertise programs in fields ranging from carpentry and engineering to cosmetology and the performing arts, but some disappeared after teachers left and many are not recognized by the state.

Gregory said he wants to “revamp” the district’s vocational offerings so that there’s a “seamless pipeline” from schools to jobs — whether students choose to enter the workforce right after high school, attend college, or get specialized job training. To oversee the effort, the district recently brought on Chamiris Mantrana, a former teacher and vice principal at Technology High School who began her career as a chemical engineer. She said that, just a few years ago, vocational education got scant attention from the district.

“Then all of a sudden,” Mantrana said, “we’re back again.”

It won’t be easy to shore up the district’s vocational programs. Many schools struggle to find qualified teachers with up-to-date industry skills, and to offer programs matched to the demands of local employers. Meanwhile, the county-run vocational and technical, or “vo-tech,” schools offer selective programs that lure away many of the district’s top students.

To help navigate those challenges, the district has joined a new coalition of Newark industry and education leaders called the Newark CTE Network. The group, which hopes to steer more students into high-quality vocational programs, held its first meeting Monday.

It was founded after regional employers complained that they couldn’t find workers for “middle-skill” jobs — electricians, dental hygienists, or crane operators, for instance — that require specialized skills but not four-year college degrees, said Monique Baptiste-Good, vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, who co-founded the network with the nonprofit, Schools That Can Newark. At the same time, many schools are unsure what types of vocational programs to offer, Baptiste-Good added.

“Right now, a lot of institutions are just researching online,” she said. “There’s no reason for that when you’ve got industry leaders right here.”

The network’s inaugural meeting was held in the downtown offices of the Newark Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the city’s economic revitalization. About a dozen people gathered in a sixth-floor conference room including Mantrana, her counterparts at the county and the state education department, and representatives of local education-focused nonprofits and employers.

Most agreed that a top challenge is attracting qualified teachers, who must have a special CTE certificate issued by the state. Individuals who have studied or worked in certain industries can get provisional teaching certificates, but they must then undergo two years of classroom supervision and coursework to become fully certified.

Convincing skilled workers to switch to a lower-paid profession with a demanding certification process all to teach teenagers is not easy, several people said. Dicxiana Carbonell, assistant superintendent of the Essex County vo-tech district, which serves about 2,200 students across four high schools and adult-education programs, said she recently interviewed a prospective automotive-technology teacher. An automotive technician for BMW, the interviewee’s current salary topped $150,000.

“How do we compete with that?” she said.

The difficulty of finding qualified teachers can lead schools to offer vocational courses based on their teachers’ certifications, rather than employer demands. Gregory, the interim superintendent, said the district has “a lot of archaic CTE programs that are not mapped to current industries.”

And while several of the system’s roughly 15 high schools offer CTE classes in areas including dentistry, the performing arts, and telecommunications, only a handful have programs that meet the state’s stringent requirements, said Mantrana, who became the district’s special assistant for CTE earlier this year. (The requirements include at least three sequential courses, a combination of classroom and hands-on learning experiences, and a culminating skills assessment.)

The district is looking to create more state-approved programs, which would make them eligible to receive federal funding that could be used to buy updated equipment and curriculum materials. Officials want those programs to tap into local job markets. For instance, Gregory said, the district is launching a transportation and logistics program that could help prepare students to work at the nearby ports, which have been criticized for hiring few local workers.

To design the new programs, the district has turned to local universities such as Rutgers and New Jersey Institute of Technology. It has also partnered with the group Schools That Can Newark, a nonprofit focused on real-world learning.

A couple years ago, the group helped West Side High School build an advanced manufacturing program from scratch — a labor-intensive process that involved finding a curriculum, setting up mentoring and internship opportunities, and establishing an advisory committee with industry representatives.

Now the group is partnering with other high schools, advising the district on its CTE strategy, and helping lead the Newark CTE Network. Its goal is for every Newark high-school student to have the chance to take high-quality vocational classes that lead to well-paying jobs, said Erin Sweeney, the group’s executive director.

“You should have employers that are lined up,” she said, “ready to grab those kids when they graduate.”

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.