Merging education, commerce a goal

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 11, 2009

By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó In the dark days after Pillowtex closed in 2003, N.C. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell convened a meeting of business leaders and legislators in Kannapolis to deal with the aftermath of the largest layoff in state history.
More than 4,300 people in Rowan and Cabarrus counties had lost their jobs, and Hartsell, who represents Cabarrus County, wanted his committee to figure out how to prevent it from happening again.
“We learned lessons, but we never really finished the job,” said Hartsell, who co-chaired the N.C. Joint Select Committee on Economic Growth and Development.
Six years later, Hartsell came back to Kannapolis with a new group also focused on jobs, the N.C. JOBS Study Commission.
The commission met Friday at the N.C. Research Campus, which rises from the ruins of the old Pillowtex plant.
This time, they’re going to complete the task, Hartsell said.
The commission, led by N.C. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, is studying how education and business can dovetail to produce a well-trained workforce that can compete in the global economy, while filling employment needs for each region of the state.
“The important thing is merging education, research, entrepreneurism, development and commerce,” said Hartsell, a member of the commission. “We want to know, what are the models for doing that.”
Named the Joining Our Businesses and Schools Commission, the group is on a listening tour of the state, bringing together business leaders and educators to hear about each region’s unique workforce requirements.
They could start making recommendations to the General Assembly as soon as May, Hartsell said.
Eventually, the commission will develop pilot education programs.
Again and again Friday, speakers told the commission that North Carolina’s public school systems must work more closely with industry. This collaboration will result in fewer high school dropouts, more college graduates and a better trained workforce.
Schools should not react to business, Dalton said, they should interact.
Speakers advocated putting high school students in the workplace through internships and apprenticeships. They said teachers from different disciplines should teach together, combining their curriculums.
They praised early college high schools and career academies, where students can focus on career goals and earn college credit before they graduate.
Early college high schools have become so popular, they’re turning students away.
Rowan-Salisbury Schools has an early college high school at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. A.L. Brown High School has one in Kannapolis.
Early college high schools often graduate students who would not have made it through a traditional high school, said Dr. Tony Habit, with the state’s Early College Program.
“That is a springboard to life’s success that you can’t even imagine,” he said.
Speakers lamented the state’s high dropout rate, which is 50 percent in some places, and state budget cuts for community colleges, even as enrollment soars.
High schools need to raise expectation and rigor and incorporate real-world problems into the classroom, commission members heard.
All solutions suggested Friday were based on close partnerships between industry and schools.
“Our education system has lagged, but the potential is there to move very quickly now,” Hartsell said. “We are asking the right questions.”