‘The new normal:’ preparing students for the work world is changing

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 19, 2015

If students are going to succeed in schools, they need a change of mindset, according to a member of a regional school board.

“Students need to see schools as a means to an end,” said Dr. Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

Bottoms visited the Rowan-Salisbury School System this week to take a pulse and make recommendations for improvement. Bottoms is the founder and director of the SREB’s High Schools That Work initiative, which aims to strengthen math and literary skills among students and prepare them for careers.

During his two-day tour of Rowan County, Bottoms met with the Board of Education, students, principles and teachers. He says that the school district is on the right path. Rowan-Salisbury schools have a solid long-range plan, and are undertaking big changes to improve the quality of experience students are having in schools. There’s a sense of excitement in the district and in the community about education.

“Those are all very positive factors to create a culture of high performance, high expectations,” he said.

But if students are going to be successful in life, instead of just on a test, some things have to change. They need to realize that learning has a purpose.

“It’s the kind of education that ties both the academics and the career status together. That’s the new workplace,” Bottoms said.

He encouraged the district to collaborate with businesses and start tailoring education and career pathways to job opportunities in the area.

“That’s the new normal,” he said. “That’s what parents want, that’s what the economy demands.”

Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody said that one thing the system needed to examine was the number of students entering credential programs at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. She said the district needed to sit down with the college and talk about how they could help students see the potential of those programs right out of high school.

Local schools already possesses academies that allow students to focus on a particular subject or career pathway. Bottoms made suggestions for curriculum adjustments that would allow schools to better utilize these programs to prepare students for the work world — any work.

Moody said the school system would be looking at the pathways and seeing how they could be partnered — such as teaming up power and energy programs with agriculture.

And for years, society has had a pervasive idea that people who worked with their hands didn’t need a strong educational background — that isn’t the case anymore. All jobs, all career paths, require strong literacy, math and analytical skills.

“Learning to read and discern and analyze information is a critical skill no matter what job you go into,” Moody said.

Moody and Bottoms agree that Rowan-Salisbury schools need a stronger focus on literacy in the classroom. Every subject needs to incorporate reading — not just English class.

“After about third grade, you need to switch over from learning how to read to reading to learn every day,” Moody said

Even jobs that used to be purely manual labor, such as masonry, now require workers to know design skills, computer skills and how to read and analyze technical information.

“There are no longer jobs that are just hands-on,” Moody said. “The jobs of the future for our students are hands-on and heads-on.”

Preparing students for a technical future requires adjustment on the part of the school system, but mostly, Bottom says, it’s a shift in mindset — it’s getting parents, teachers, students and the community to look at the big picture of education.

“It’s not just thinking about college,” Bottoms said. “It’s thinking about why you’re going to college and what’s the career focus.”

And this change, this direction, needs to begin early — in middle school. Students need to realize why they attend schools.

“It’s not just a place to hang out,” Bottoms said. “It’s a place to get you someplace.”

Bottoms gave the school system a lot to chew on, Moody said, and she thinks it’s been a very thoughtful, productive two days.

“We still have a great deal of work to do,” she said.