While many American youths struggle to find success in an increasingly complex world, some Newton County high school students already have a short, clear path to a potentially long-lasting career.
The Newton College and Career Academy hosted around 50 community and business leaders Wednesday, and school officials showed off the progress they’re making and invited area businesses and organizations to invent future partnership opportunities.
The school has already tailored specific programs, called pathways, for local industries and organizations. Pathways prepare students for jobs with those groups right after school.
One pathway is for retail refrigeration-industry company Hillphoenix, which has plants in Covington and Conyers. James Woodard, principal of the career academy, said Hillphoenix officials are helping design the curriculum for the pathway and even providing teachers, called trainers, at the career academy. There are 19 students, termed "associates," who will be ready for Hillphoenix jobs after school.
Another recent development is a firefighter pathway, which was the brainchild of Newton County Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien after he toured the academy. He sent Woodard a "what if" email, and the program was born out of the efforts of school officials and those with the Newton County and Covington fire departments and the Covington-Newton County 911 Center. There are 33 students in the firefighter program.
Woodard said local businesses, governments and organizations may be looking for specific skills or professional certifications in its hires, and the career academy can help fill the gaps if it knows what’s needed.
Becoming a professional
In addition to job-specific skills, Woodard said the academy is focusing on improving students’ "soft skills," or, as Woodard calls them, "the skills that get you hired and fired."
James Johnson is the director of Existing Industry and Workforce Development for the county’s Office of Economic Development, and he spends his time visiting with industry leaders and asking what they need. A lack of soft skills — work ethic, professional appearance, good attendance, attitude, organizational skills, teamwork — has been one of the biggest issues.
In addition to the career academy, Johnson is trying to facilitate soft-skills classes in the community. Classes will start at the Covington Housing Authority, off Alcovy Road, later this month, and classes are also planned later at the under-construction New Leaf Workforce Development Center in the Walker’s Bend subdivision, off Washington Street.
For more information, email Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 770-786-7510.
Woodard’s presentation was based in part on a February 2011 Harvard University study "Pathways to Prosperity," which gave a stark analysis of the current state of American education.
"The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken. Failure to aggressively overcome this challenge will surely erode the fabric of our society," the report’s conclusion states.
"If we fail to better prepare current and future teens and young adults, their frustration over scarce and inferior opportunities is likely to grow, along with economic inequality. The quality of their lives will be lower, the costs that they impose on society will be higher, and many of their potential contributions to society will go unrealized."
Citing in particular successes in some European countries, the report concludes that students learn best in hands-on job experiences where they must combine work and learning, and the learning can be applied and placed in a real-world context.
The academy’s "career pathways" are an application of conclusions in the Harvard study and other studies. While some form of post-secondary education is important for most students, Woodard said only about 20 percent of the workforce requires a bachelor’s or more advanced degree. Students can earn college credit while at the academy, including through a partnership with Georgia Piedmont Technical College (GPTC), and Woodard said the goal is to have graduates be both college- and career- ready.
For example, the school has a culinary arts pathway. Upon graduation, students may only need a little additional training, not necessarily a four-year college degree. The culinary arts students prepared the breakfast served Wednesday.
While GPTC is providing teachers to the academy, the academy is considering offering adult education classes in areas where it has facilities and area colleges may not, including culinary and broadcast and video production.
The academy is also trying to address the need for science and math graduates through its STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Institute, which kicked off this year. The institute offers rigorous academic and real-world industry courses, taught by experts in their fields.
Woodard is considering expanding the program to become a STEM Institute, by adding an arts path through a partnership with the Arts Association in Newton County. The vacant Porter Auditorium in the old Newton High School could be an option for future training opportunities. The STEM Institute is located in a portion of the former Newton High School, which is next to the career academy.
The academy also has an incubator program for entrepreneurs, which has 17 enterprising students in its ranks.