Ottawa schools promote employment-ready students for community

To help students break out of poverty through education, Ottawa USD 290 has fashioned partnerships with an area community college, county economic development council and local businesses, and voters who approved a $63.1 million bond issue to expand school facilities. 

Superintendent Jeanne Stroh and Assistant Superintendent Ryan Cobbs visited with KASB before the Region 2 Fall meeting, and discussed several new strategies the district has developed to help students graduate prepared to take care of themselves and their families. 

One initiative is the district’s C3 program, which combines district funding, a $20 per credit hour student fee and discounted tuition at Neosho Community College’s branch facility in Ottawa. It allows students to earn a two-year associate’s degree within one year of graduating high school – or less. Through dual enrollment in college courses, students can take 44 of 62 credits during regular high school hours, and the balance after graduation, over the summer or evenings. 

In its second year, participation in the program jumped from 70 students to 174 this semester. 

Some students enter their career directly after completing the program. For others, it provides a big start on a bachelor’s degree, saving students both time and tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition and living costs. “Parents are thrilled,” said Stroh,” who stressed the program would be impossible without the cooperation of NCC. 

The district and community college offered dual enrollment courses before the program was implemented, but cost limited participation. “One of the most heartbreaking things at enrollment was hearing parents say they couldn’t afford the costs of college courses, or only a small number,” said Cobbs. Many students didn’t even ask, knowing that taking college courses in high school was financially impossible for their families. High school students are not eligible for federal financial aid for college. 

Like many districts dealing with a high number of low income students, Ottawa faces challenges in dealing with parents whose families have never been to college. Schools begin working with parents in the earliest grades, helping them “dream” about what their children can accomplish in the long term. “You can’t just start taking about planning for future careers in 9th grade,” said Stroh. 

The district has STEM programs in all three elementary schools, afterschool programs, and is one of the Project Gemini districts in the second wave of school redesign initiated by the Kansas State Department of Education. 

Another partnership is with the Franklin County Development Council. The district works with local businesses to identify students for internships and work experience that can lead to a job as soon as the student graduates, and may lead to employer-paid postsecondary studies. 

These efforts are keeping more students in the community and helping employers fill labor needs. “Our high school is the first line in local employment,” said Cobbs. 

The bond issue allowed the district to meet another goal: creating more classroom space for lower class size. However, this couldn’t happen until the Legislature boosted state funding, giving the district resources to hire seven new elementary teachers and cut average class size from 25-29 to 14-21. 

The bond issue also allowed the high school to add and equip six new science classrooms with labs and a performing arts center as well as student “think tanks,” “We are trying to make our high school more like a community college campus,” said Stroh. 

Both administrators credited strong community support for redesigning school buildings and programs to better support student success. 

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