Kansas City seeking to prepare students for jobs in global communityScott Rothschild
As Kansas seeks to redesign schools to prepare more students for the workplace of the future, a massive effort to change the meaning of a high school diploma is already under way in Kansas City USD 500.
The fifth largest district in the state, with nearly 22,000 students, is phasing in a requirement that every high school graduate by 2021 (current ninth-graders) must not only pass traditional course units for a diploma, but also complete one of seven endorsements:
- Completion of at least one full year of college (18-30 credit hours).
- Completion of an industry-recognized certificate or credential.
- A score of at least 21 on the ACT or 1060 on the SAT.
- Completion of the International Baccalaureate program or career-related program.
- Acceptance into the military.
- Completion of a qualified internship or industry-approved project.
- An approved plan of postsecondary transition.
Last year, over half of the district’s high school graduates had already met this standard, called Diploma Plus. It means that a KCK graduate has not only completed the “seat time” of academic courses required by the state, but has also demonstrated a level of preparation for college or career – or even completed a credential.
According to superintendent Dr. Cynthia Lane, the concept reflects the research indicating that over 70 percent of future jobs in Kansas will require more than a high school diploma. That is the foundation of the State Board of Education’s Kansans Can Vision. However, the planning for Diploma Plus was under way long before Kansans Can was adopted, backed by employers in the Kansas City community, including area chambers of commerce and the Wyandotte County Economic Development Council.
Transforming the district’s five high schools from traditional secondary schools to Diploma Plus Academies – supported by a $235 million bond issue remodeling and improving district schools – is a key part of the plan. Each high school will offer multiple “academies” based on career paths. Students will be able to select an academy reflecting their interest, either located in their residential attendance area or receive district transportation to any other high school program.
As a result, Lane explains, these programs will be present in every student’s high school experience, without having to go to a separate building.
While the academies are the culmination of the student’s school experience, the focus on blending academics with career focus really begins in the district’s preschool programs. “Our goal is to work with parents to help them envision a future for their children; and then to help students find their interests,” said Lane.
That focus on preparing for the future is present at each level. Elementary field trips include a career experience. Middle school includes project-based, hands-on learning, career exploration and visits to college and career sites. By eighth grade, students pick an academy, and begin developing “real world” experience in their career interests. For example, one high school includes a community health clinic, providing opportunities for students to study community health and nursing on site.
What about students who change their minds about career interests when dealing with the actual experience? “Students can learn as much from what they find out they DON’T like,” said Lane. That doesn’t mean the experience has been a failure or a waste of time. “The rigor of coursework, study skills, and hands-on activities will transfer to other fields if students decide to go a different route.”
For a district like Kansas City, with often the highest levels of student poverty in the state, equipping more students with skills for employment – especially employment in higher-skills jobs with higher pay – is the only way out of poverty. Many students face extremely difficult home situations, and may well be the first in their family to attend postsecondary education.
“Schools must help students get out of poverty,” said Lane. “That also means helping the community as productive members of society. KCK wants to be involved in helping improve the state’s economy.”
Another characteristic of the district that is both a challenge and an opportunity is the vast diversity of race, ethnicity and languages (over 70 are spoken) from a community shaped by years of immigration and refugee settlement. While this can make things as simple as school-to-home communications far more difficult, it also allows students to experience a much more “global” environment, like many will face as adults.
“As employers are getting to know our kids as they graduate, I think they are surprised and impressed,” said Lane. “We are giving students the skills and the experience of diversity that employers are looking for.”
Lane compliments her board of education for keeping its focus on the district’s goals even during challenging budget times. KCK used new state funding to make staff salaries more competitive and reduce the number of unfilled positions – a chronic problem for the district in an area when many other teaching jobs are available. The district is helping paraprofessionals take courses to become teachers, stressing education as a “pathway” for graduates and boosting its recruitment efforts.
The district also invested additional funding in family and community liaisons to strengthen home and school connections, including dealing with language barriers. Finally, the district is trying to expand its early childhood programs in a community where low-income preschoolers far outnumber the slots available to serve them.
Finally, Lane commended her team of educators for working to transform education in a challenging environment. “Teaching here is much more than teaching content. It’s about relationships with students and families. It’s pretty intense. You are either ‘all in,’ or you’re not here long.”