CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County is applying for $25 million in federal Race to the Top education funds to curb the county's high school dropout rate and get students thinking about jobs when they're still in elementary and middle school."Our goal here is to expose [students] to auto mechanics and bricklaying and electricians and let them develop an internship and develop a portfolio and see what kind of money that job makes," said Ron Duerring, superintendent of Kanawha County schools. "This is starting early trying to get kids exposed early to what's out there for them and to develop that idea of what they want to be and what they need to work on to get there. And that's the whole idea of this program which is something we're not doing."Kanawha County will request a slice of $400 million in federal funds under President Obama's Race to the Top program later this month to start internships with local businesses, launch career fairs for middle-school students and revise course material to help students better prepare for real-world jobs when they graduate."It's a big grant," said Mark Milam, assistant superintendent of Kanawha County Schools. "The end result of this is that by the time students are seniors, if they decide to go onto college, they've touched it and felt it and know what it is. And for seniors going right into being employable, they've got the skills to work right out of high school."The major focus of the national grant, which will be awarded to 15 to 25 districts across the country, is to revamp the county's approach to prepare students for jobs when they graduate. One way to do that is through a "strategic compass" program that starts students from kindergarten in charting a roadmap for their future job."Students can go in from kindergarten and see what jobs are out there," said Milam. "They can see how to find out the pay scale for the job and the courses they need to take. This will streamline the process so that when they're a senior in high school [they know what to do]."The grant, available to states that did not receive previous Race to the Top funds, will also pay for shadowing opportunities to students starting in sixth grade, offer summer internships with local businesses to students, incorporate technical writing into coursework, develop career fairs for seventh graders, and teach students the importance of being on time, passing drug tests and working in teams.The U.S. Department of Education will award the $400 million in competitive grants in December to districts whose officials emphasize personalized learning, closing achievement gaps and preparing students for college and careers. West Virginia education officials unsuccessfully applied for $80 million in Race to the Top funds in 2010 for proposing a series of education reforms.At a meeting on Monday, board members stressed that there needed to be a concerted shift on the county level away from an "every child to college" mentality. The reality, said board member Bill Raglin, is that college just isn't for everyone.
"We've developed a cult that has permeated society that unless the child is going on to college that they're somewhat mentally deficient," said Raglin. "Parents wouldn't come in and be opposed to their child going that direction if they didn't have the preconceived idea inculcated in them that unless you're going to college, you've got something wrong with you. The vocational program has become a dumping ground where you send kids you think don't have it."Board member Robin Rector agreed."There are always going to be those out there that say a kid is only successful if you go to college," Rector said. "We have to change that culture. The jobs aren't there for kids coming out of college and the value of that diploma isn't what it was 5 to 10 years ago."West Virginia ranks among the bottom in the nation for its college-going rates. Only 59 percent of West Virginia high school graduates went to college in 2010. That's below the national average of almost 64 percent. For every 100 ninth graders in the state, only 72 graduate from high school, according to the Higher Education Policy Commission. Only 43 of those students enter college.On a statewide level, there has been a major push to increase the graduation rate, with state officials encouraging local districts to tout the benefits of a college education.
Duerring said the county is focusing on both vocational education and college-readiness. He brushed off board member Jim Crawford's argument that the county's approach to post-high school graduation was "going in the wrong direction.""We're not headed in the wrong direction," said Duerring. "Parents get nervous if you pigeonhole their kid and say they're going to be an electrician. ... We're giving kids options."Reach Amy Julia Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.