South Valley hooks $14.7M for work-based learning

After years of emphasizing college readiness in high school curriculum, school districts throughout the Central Valley are now focusing on work-based learning.

THE BUSINESS JOURNAL | Written by Hannah Edqueda

After years of emphasizing college readiness in high school curriculum, school districts throughout the Central Valley are now focusing on work-based learning.

The switch came shortly after the California Department of Education poured $250 million into the California Career Pathways Trust (CCPT) last year. School districts throughout the state are now competing for one-time grants in order to update their career-based offerings.

“For far too long we’ve kind of only focused on college and not what kind of career [students] want to pursue,” said Bill Davis, career technical education project coordinator for Visalia Unified School District (VUSD).

VUSD joined with a dozen other school districts in Tulare and Kings counties last year to form the Tulare-Kings Linked Learning Consortium. The organization was designed to make each smaller school district more competitive when applying for CCPT grant money. So far, the group has been awarded $14.7 million for three years and plans to reapply during the next round.

Visalia is using its share of the grant to implement its Linked Learning Academies at five of its high schools. Two pilot programs focusing on agricultural engineering and health sciences began last fall and programs in architecture, media arts, computer science and agriculture bioscience technology will be added at the start of the next academic year.

The program has generated a lot of interest from students and families, and Davis said the district has placed 480 students in the various programs for next fall. Participating students will begin academy courses their freshmen year, spending half the school day attending classes focused on the chosen academy career theme.

Each academy was planned with a cap of 60 to 70 students, but the district has already had to double the number of spaces available in its health sciences program at Mt. Whitney High School, Davis said. The academy is designed to prepare students for careers in the medical field and has partnered with Kaweah Delta Health Care District and Family HealthCare Network (FHCN) to expose students to lab-like settings.

“Health care is an industry with a very high growth rate. We want people from the community to pursue careers in health and stay in our community,” said Kerry Hydash, president and CEO of FHCN.

Hydash said the organization has a tradition of partnering with schools throughout the region to help prepare the future industry workforce. By exposing high school students to a real medical work environment, she said career pathway programs give participants a better idea of how the industry works and the kind of commitment required.

That kind of hands-on training is important for a career in any industry, said Nicola Wissler, communications and special projects coordinator for the Visalia Chamber of Commerce. The chamber and many of its members have partnered with VUSD on the Linked Learning Academies in order to help provide students with multiple opportunities for real-world experience.

“We’ve heard that a common problem for our [business] members is that they can’t find people with the skills that are required for their jobs,” she said. “For the chamber, this is important because it is going to benefit the community.”

Don Groppetti, owner of Groppetti Automotive Group in the South Valley, agreed and said his business hopes to pair its internship program with the high school’s career pathway offerings. He is currently chairman of the business advisory committee, helping to create curriculum for VUSD’s program. The group has representatives from 15 local businesses, all of which are interested in preparing the region’s future workforce for their chosen careers.

“We think this kind of training is really critical,” he said. “A lot of businesses are looking at this and seeing how they can help.”

Educators and business owners are hopeful that connecting high school students with area employers and training them for careers in local industries will help address the Central Valley’s high unemployment rate while keeping jobs in the region.

The value of the CCPT grant extends beyond the Central Valley, however, and Davis said school districts throughout the state have been quick to notice the program’s value.

“Last year, the CCPT grant had $250 million available and received $750 million in applications,” he said. “A lot of districts are going after it.”

Valerie Vuicich, administrator for career technology education and the Regional Occupational Program with the Fresno County Office of Education, agreed and said her office has heard from districts throughout Fresno and Madera counties who are eager to get some funding.

“It’s the only new money available to career tech education in the state and everybody wants it,” she said. “The districts get to pick the areas for where they’re going to be putting the money.”

While Fresno and Madera County school districts have yet to win any funding through her office, Vuicich said the schools are hoping to put the funds towards training students for careers in manufacturing — an industry sorely in need of qualified local applicants.

“A good chunk of that money will be for teacher training in order to help qualify students for their welding certification,” she said. “We won’t hear back on this year’s applications until May.”

Career pathways programs are not for every student however, and Vuicich said it’s still common to hear from students who are interested in careers or education outside the Central Valley. Those types of opportunities should be encouraged even as educators look more towards the local job market.

“If that’s what they’re really talented at, or interested in then, we shouldn’t stand in their way,” she said. “At the same time, we need our curriculum to be more reflective of what jobs are here to make sure our kids qualify for them.”

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