CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's school system needs to focus more on career and technical education pathways in order for students, and the state's economy, to succeed, education officials told legislators Wednesday.
"If education does not work closely hand in hand with the business industry, we're never going to produce the type of students we need to help West Virginia. Most of our educators have never been in business," Kathy D'Antoni, assistant state superintendent of schools, told the Education Audit Work Group.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, formed the work group, which was established to become the House's expert source on the recommendations found in the governor's sweeping audit.
Among its many recommendations to reform the public school system, the audit urges an enhanced collaboration between education and workforce leaders to improve the state's 30 career and technical centers. Schools should work with outside professionals and agencies to create an "eco-development" plan built on the state's priorities, the audit says.
The state Board of Education agrees with most of the audit's recommendations involving career and technical centers, including a call to integrate career preparedness into standard curriculum and an expansion of cross-counseling.
The Department of Education is optimistic it will receive grant funding for a new program that transforms career and technical centers into "simulated workplaces" in order to better prepare students for the real world, according to D'Antoni, who heads the state's Division of Technical and Adult Education Services.
"The same kids who are scoring at the bottom on the WESTEST are scoring higher on exams [in career and technical education, or CTE, classes] than the national average. The difference is that they're engaged -- they can see the relevancy of what they're learning," she said. "I see kids who miss 50 days of school come to CTE and not miss another day."
The new program would enhance that sense of relevancy by essentially turning class projects into companies that depend on student success, D'Antoni said. Students would receive real certifications contingent on inspection by business leaders across the state -- not teachers.
"It's not so much that students don't have the content now, it's more that they don't understand the process of business -- a work ethic, showing up on time, all the things that make a business successful," she said. "They will be able to see and understand what they do in that class will impact their company."
In addition, teachers should work with students and parents to dispel stigmas associated with the CTE option, which is often referred to as "middle skill" classes, D'Antoni said.
"We get students every day who are at risk -- the problem children, so to speak. That's because they don't know where else to put them," she said. "Parents, and even some counselors, think you either have a choice: go to college or take the CTE route. But, that's far from the truth. This distinction is resulting in our students not receiving the education they could be, and it's because of a lack of knowledge on the parents' part. It's a whole different educational environment than in the past."
House Education Committee Chairwoman Mary Poling offered to sit down with D'Antoni to review legislation and look for areas to modernize policies that would provide more flexibility for schools to tailor to students' specific needs.
Gary Clay, chairman of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and Workforce Development Committee, said with more than 70 percent of the state's high school graduates not entering college, lawmakers need to advocate for CTE in order to help the students "who fall through the cracks."