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Officials eye $25 million work readiness grant

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County school officials want a $25 million federal grant to better prepare students for the workforce.

"The whole idea is giving (students) choices and seeing what's out there," Superintendent Ron Duerring said Tuesday at a board of education meeting.

The grant is available through the U.S. Race to the Top-District program, said Mark Milam, assistant superintendent for Kanawha County Schools. In the past, such funding was only available at the state level, but Milam said this grant is offered to individual school systems.

Milam delivered a 26-point synopsis of programs available through the grant. He said that doesn't cover all of the opportunities the grant could create, but gives a good overview of the project's goal of producing a "worldclass workforce" and developing leaders.

Many of the programs focus entirely on creating and fostering attributes the school system believes are necessary in the workplace. For example, Milam said the school system would create a "soft skills curriculum" that he said would make students more "employable." Those skills include learning to work as a team and project work, he said.

That also includes stressing the importance of showing up to work on time and the ability to pass a drug test, Duerring said, answering a question from board member Bill Raglin.

Job shadowing, summer internships, earning class credit for part-time or full-time internships during the school year and classrooms in business settings are other ideas included in the grant application.

These initiatives are aimed at younger students than in the past, Milam said. Milam said the grant could also provide sixth grade students with iPads, smartphones or other handheld devices with which to keep "career application" materials with them until they graduate.

Those materials could include the soft skills training and other pre-employment certification a student could present to an employer when applying for a job, Milam said.

Businesses have also volunteered to help implement program initiatives, Milam said. They have volunteered to host students, while the Charleston Area Alliance has offer to providea a course that familiarizes students with the workforce. "It's taking kids out of the classroom and into the real world and gaining insight," Duerring said.

Parent education programs are included Milam said, in order to teach parents about options awaiting their children. "Wellness programs" are also included in the grant, because Milam said the workforce wants healthy employees.

Raglin and other school officials took the discussion as an opportunity to lament a culture they believe forces students to think they need to attend college. "We are never going to make it in a society as long as we keep referring to a kid as though they're college material or not," Raglin said.

Board member Jim Crawford said the school system needs a comprehensive high school that can offers programs that train brick layers, plumbers, electricians and other trade positions.

While Duerring said parents get a little nervous when the school system "pigeonholes" theire child and forces them to be an electrician, he thinks many students don't have a realistic grasp of the work their desired professions will require.

"Their goals don't connect with the real world about what they need to do to get there," Duerring said.

Duerring said a college degree was the path to a better life for the Baby Boomer generation, but that is changing. Board member Robin Rector agreed, saying a college diploma doesn't have the same value now that it did five or 10 years ago.

In 2010, 63 percent of Kanawha County graduates attended college, according to the state higher education policy commission. While graduation rates at institutes in the state continue to decline, commission Chancellor Paul Hill has repeatedly stressed the importance of more graduates to the state of West Virginia. Hill has repeatedly said by 2018 it will take an additional 20,000 graduates to remain in West Virginia in order to maintain the current workforce.

It's important for the school system not to force any student into college though, Raglin said.

"We have got to do our part. We have got to stop making remarks like 'A kid is not college material,'" Raglin said.

Grants will be awarded over a four-year time period, Milam said. The U.S. Department of Education has $400 million to allocate and intends to fund between 15 and 25 projects, according to an August news release from the department.

In order to apply a school system must serve at least 2,000 students, with at least 40 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. Any school system, including those already receiving funs through state-level Race to the Top funding, are eligible to apply.

Applications are due by the end of the month and the department will announce which projects it will fund by the end of the year.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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