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story.lead_photo.caption Alex Lopez (left), Gravette High School junior, and Dylan Whitford, Bentonville High School senior, work on a welding project Thursday during class at the Western Benton County Career Center in Gravette. - Photo by Jason Ivester

An ongoing push for high school students to earn industry certifications has educators, business representatives and lawmakers working to pass a bill to support the development of regional workforce centers.

If the legislation passes, school districts would join with post-secondary schools, cities and counties to create workforce development center authorities, said Richard Page, superintendent of the Gravette School District. They would work through those organizations to acquire land and borrow money to build regional workforce training centers.

Key bills on career education

• SB288, sponsored by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs: To create the workforce development center authority act; to authorize the creation and operation of workforce development center authorities for the purpose of providing vocational and technical education.

• SB423, sponsored by Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville: To amend provisions in the Arkansas code concerning career and technical education.

Source: Staff report

The center would offer job training during the day for high school students and programs for adults at night.

"By doing a regional effort, we can all do one program that serves all of us cheaper," Page said. "We would have it in a central location that would provide opportunities for more kids."

Senate Bill 288, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, passed with 31 votes last week and is working its way through the House. The House Education Committee plans to take up the proposal Tuesday, said Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, the House sponsor of the bill.

"We have a large portion of our student population that does not go on to get a four-year degree," Douglas said. "We have so many jobs in our economy that are going unfilled that are high-skilled, high-paid jobs that we're not training for."

SB 288 is one idea being explored as lawmakers and educators work to improve the career-education system.

In the Little Rock School District, the state's largest with about 24,000 students, Superintendent Mike Poore said earlier this month that there will be additional classes in health professions, technology solutions, teacher preparation and construction trades in the 2017-18 academic year, and it plans to reinvigorate its law enforcement program.

The courses are part of the district's new Excel Careers for Advanced Professional Studies, which will provide 11th- and 12th-graders with opportunities to earn industry certificates and college hours along with traditional high school graduation credits.

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Poore started a career-education program -- the Ignite initiative -- in the Bentonville School District, where he was superintendent for five years before his appointment as superintendent of the state-run Little Rock district.

To help support the Little Rock initiative, the district is joining the Center for Advanced Professional Studies' network of school districts, which includes the Bentonville district. About two dozen districts in nine states are part of the network, which got its start in metropolitan Kansas City, Mo.

Bentonville School District Superintendent Debbie Jones, who is a former deputy education commissioner, and Pea Ridge School District Superintendent Rick Neal have led a committee of superintendents on researching possible legislation to make programs that prepare students for the workforce more responsive to rapidly changing needs of businesses. They also involved officials from the Department of Career Education.

Testing legislation

The work of Jones and Neal is reflected in Senate Bill 423, filed Wednesday by Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville.

A key part of the bill focuses on testing in career-education programs, Jones said. The bill would adjust the language of existing laws so career education programs would use third-party, industry-recognized assessments that are based on the current standards of employers.

Bentonville is the third-largest school district in the state, with about 16,600 students. The district's Ignite program gives students from Bentonville the chance to explore a variety of careers, including information technology, construction professions and graphic design. Computer-coding languages change rapidly, and employers update the certifications and assessments they use to evaluate the skills of applicants, Jones said.

The proposal aims to replace end-of-course assessments with industry-recognized exams so career-focused courses can adjust instruction to match current industry expectations, Jones said. Districts also want the Department of Career Education to consider a broad range of industry-recognized assessments for career and technical education classes.

"It is an effort for us to provide high-skilled workers for our economy," Jones said.

The legislation reflects a shift that has been going on for the past two years away from tests developed by teachers and toward industry-recognized assessments, said Kathi Turner, a deputy director for the Department of Career Education.

Superintendents are interested in students exploring careers and earning certificates in industries where they can find jobs, said Charles Cudney, director of the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative. This gives students the option of immediate employment after graduation, the ability to earn higher wages to support themselves through college or to enter a career field and gain work experience while they finish their college degrees.

Creating options

Students can still pursue a traditional college track, Cudney said.

"The goal is to not let anyone graduate high school without a plan," Cudney said.

SB 288 would give school districts, vocational-technical schools, and city and county governments the ability to work together on developing and financing regional workforce centers.

The centers could be supported by a mix of funding sources, including from voter-approved property and sales taxes, according to the bill. The centers could receive state funding. The participating governments also could provide money out of their regular operating budgets, pursue grants, receive gifts of property or money, or charge tuition to individuals or employers.

"This bill allows us to pool our money together to have the power to offer more than what we could ever do for ourselves," he said.

Larger schools are able to offer career and technical centers, but they often do not have space to accommodate students from smaller high schools, Page said. Another option is for students to attend vocational-technical schools, but the closest to Gravette is Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale, about an hour away.

Western Benton County school districts have created a consortium to give high school students the ability to learn workforce skills in programs in each of their districts, Page said. This allows students from Bentonville and Decatur the option of taking welding in Gravette, and the ability for students from their districts to participate in the Bentonville School District's Ignite Professional Studies program.

"We're piecing things together," Page said. "We're doing the best we can with what we have. It's not quite good enough."

Partnerships

If the legislation passes, the school districts will have the ability to keep programs within their districts or to provide programs, such as automotive service technology and aviation mechanics, in a central location, Page said.

Northwest Technical Institute has three satellite locations where it offers classes in closer proximity to high school students who are not able to get to its main location in Springdale, said Blake Robertson, president of the career and technical education school. The institute offers programs for high school students and adults.

The institute offers a nursing program in Rogers and partners with Gravette for the school's new welding program.

Plans in Washington County include moving a dental assisting program from Fayetteville to Farmington for the 2017-18 school year, Robertson said. The institute already provides classes in criminal justice in Farmington. Robertson said he also is seeking state approval to add programs in machining and information technology program in Farmington.

The satellite locations are open to high school students in Benton and Washington counties, he said.

If the proposed legislation for regional centers passes, the institute and school districts will have another option for expanding career and technical education programs, Robertson said.

Bentonville school officials have been involved in discussions and support districts having the ability to participate, Jones said, but she and her staff would have to determine if it's financially feasible before considering whether to join.

Douglas, the state legislator, said he remembers taking shop classes when he was in high school in the early 1970s. Schools often needed a couple hundred dollars' worth of tools for those classes, he said.

Students today need access to high-tech equipment found in today's manufacturing plants, such as computerized machines and robotic arms, Douglas said.

"Because of the extreme cost and the technology that's involved today, it only makes sense for these schools to get together and pool their resources," Douglas said. "If we want a world-class workforce, we have to have world-class training centers."

Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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