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." Clay suggested the establishment of a governor's academy for career and technical options similar to the Governor's Schools for the Arts and for Math and Science. "The future of this state depends on it," Clay said. Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, agreed that re-emphasizing CTE could lead to major accomplishments for the state. "Once these students experience success one time, they start building from there, he said. Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, said a primary factor in the success of these programs would be the educators' attention to students' unique ways of learning. "With the makeup of their home life, some students are out there on their own. It's going to take a little bit more than being introduced one day at a job fair. The key is to have people in the school system that monitor and keep up after them. They need to feel a connection with an adult who cares about them," she said. Representatives from Vision Shared, a nonprofit that has hosted education forums around the state, and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce also urged the work group to give attention to CTE. Nearly 70 percent of the chamber's employers require skill specialization when hiring, according to a 2012 survey. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, asked legislators to focus on the recommendations found on the audit that will have a direct impact on student achievement. "Many of the things in the audit have no bearing on student achievement, and if we are really truly going to improve public education, then student achievement should be at the very top of the list of the things we're trying to improve," he said. Judy Hale, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, also urged that when deciding policy changes, lawmakers should realize what's important. "If it doesn't improve academic achievement, we ought not to be doing it. If it's an issue whether we don't know if it will improve, then we ought to be piloting it," she said. The Education Audit Work group will meet again at the Capitol next month. Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.