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Business and education, a natural fit

Business summit
Aug. 29, 2013 @ 07:55 AM

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The business community was called upon Wednesday at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's 2013 Annual Meeting and Business Summit to get more involved in solutions to the state's challenges in education.

Kathy D'Antoni, associate superintendent for the West Virginia Department of Education, urged businessmen and women to participate in the state's new Simulated Workplace Initiative, which allows students at career centers to get hands-on experience in an actual business. She'd like to have more businesses where students can participate and more business people involved in evaluating the program to make sure it's up-to-date in meeting the demands of today's economy.

"We're seeking great businesses to work with us," D'Antoni said. "We are transforming career education in West Virginia. We have 21 projects now (with 3,000 participating students). ... Students no longer go to a program like a welding program or an electrical program. They go to a company, a welding company, an electrical company or construction trades company."

What students do there is either earn or lose fake money for the company, not only learning a trade but the soft skills -- like professionalism and teamwork -- that also affect a company's bottom line and their own futures. What's best, she said, is that the students like it because they see meaning in it.

At these meetings, "We meet and shake hands and go our separate ways," D'Antoni said. "We cannot do that. We need to have business and industry immersed in our education."

She spoke as part of a panel discussion titled "Education Transformation: What's next for West Virginia?" at the business summit, which continues through Friday at the Greenbrier Resort. It was the first of two panel discussions scheduled that are focused solely on education, with the second coming up Thursday and titled "Education Transformation: What's Working in Other States?"

Other speakers participating in Wednesday's panel discussion were the Rev. Matthew Watts of Charleston's West Side, CEO of HOPE Community Development Corporation; Amanda Pasdon of Morgantown, minority chair of the Education Committee in the state House of Delegates; Josh Stowers of Lincoln County, former vice chair of the Education Committee in the House of Delegates; and Will Nash of Hazard, Ky., the executive director of Teach for America.

Each discussed efforts that are underway to improve education in West Virginia as well as their thoughts on what else needs to be done.

Watts said public education needs redesigned rather than reformed.

He said the system was designed centuries ago around rural economies and need to change to keep up with technology-based economies. One change needed is a new balanced or "year-round" school calendar to eliminate the loss of learning brought on each summer, he said.

"We're trying to do these robust things in this rigid format of that past," Watts said. "I think the calendar is really restricting what we're able to do."

Nash, whose organization strives to find the best and brightest teachers for low-income schools, said study after study indicates that the "summer slide" is a true result of the traditional school calendar.

It was true 20 years ago, and it's true today, he said.

Stowers said he's concerned that today's education system doesn't carve out a way for advanced students to reach their full potential. Once students meet the bar, they're no longer a priority, he said.

He also talked about reaching students at the middle school level to let them know they can have successful careers without a four-year degree. Waiting until high school is detrimental in some cases because by ninth grade, they've already decided that school has nothing to offer them and that they'll drop out, he said.

"Vocational schools in Kanawha County have a 90 percent job placement rate, if they finish," Stowers said. "The jobs are out there, it's just getting students to where they finish. ... If we can build a relevancy with them that there is something besides a four-year degree to get a good job, we're going to see a shift ... and have the workforce that is demanded here in West Virginia."

Watts said his organization takes a "holistic look at the community. We're leaving no stones unturned and trying to create a plan to provide a better environment for our children."

He wants to see his neighborhood schools -- some of which rank the lowest in the state on test scores -- create the same culture of success in academics that they do for football.

He and other panelists also shared thoughts on charter schools, igniting entrepreneurial spirit, removing the stigma of vocational education, and the importance of getting families and the entire community involved in a diverse, comprehensive approach to helping kids in all their varieties of talents and home lives.

Kids can't vote, Watts pointed out. It's up to the adults to make sure they elect officials that make education a top priority. And he called out the business community as a "sleeping giant" that is one of the groups that has the power to make education a higher political priority.

"Businesses aren't penalizing politicians either for not prioritizing education because you don't see (that it's the front end of the train that becomes the workforce to fuel your business)."

The country can't bring the political pressure without them, he said.

"I would hope that this body would realize if you don't do it, we'll keep talking about it," he said.

But talking about reform is not the same as change, Watts said.

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