For nearly two years, I have participated in the Western Kanawha Valley Community Advisory Panel. The group is made up of local leaders in business, education, government and community service. We meet monthly to help identify needs, solve problems and strengthen our ties to the Kanawha Valley.
We often discuss the changing nature of business and employment in West Virginia. Everyone recognizes that our workforce needs are evolving at a breathtaking pace. These changes mean that there are many opportunities for West Virginia students that do not require a bachelor’s degree or advanced academics. It is vital we expose our students and their parents to these important and potentially profitable choices for technical careers.
West Virginia has worked hard to provide opportunities for our students to access career and technical education. We have CTE available in our high schools, countywide CTE schools and even in multi-county CTE centers. After secondary school, students may seek advanced training at our state career and technical colleges or at our universities.
CTE has greatly expanded from the vo-tech programs in which many of us participated during our high school years. Students participating in CTE today have opportunities to study topics in 16 career clusters ranging from agriculture to health sciences to manufacturing to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). These clusters and their career pathways help our students and teachers explore career options from secondary through post-secondary school.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2017, West Virginia assisted 46,886 CTE high school students. Of those, 99 percent graduated, 91 percent met performance goals for technical skills, and 77 percent went directly into an apprenticeship, joined the military or entered the workforce. CTE helps keep students engaged and focused on school.
After involvement in CTE during high school, many students want to continue their education through a post-secondary certificate or associate degree program. During the 2019 legislative session, which ended in March, we passed Senate Bill 1, the West Virginia Invests Grant Program. Championed by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, this program will ensure that any West Virginia resident who wants to go to a participating state college and major in a high-demand field will not have to incur student loan debt to pay for tuition and fees. First, a student must apply for any available federal grant funding. After that is applied, the W.Va. Invests Grant Program will cover the balance.
The state does ask each student who receives a grant to make a commitment to West Virginia. They must take and pass a drug test each year. Students must fulfill eight hours of community service before graduation or completion of a certificate, and they must commit to working in the state for two years. As long as a student is working toward a degree or certificate by taking 6 credits per semester, they remain eligible. This allows students to work and go to school.
The employers who are part of the Western Kanawha Valley CAP program believe we have one piece still missing in our CTE efforts in West Virginia. We would like to see our students exposed to CTE opportunities in middle school. In addition, during the education forums and listening tours recently held, we heard repeatedly that our children need more exposure to career and technical education.
Participation in CTE in middle school allows students to explore a variety of careers they may find of interest without the pressure to commit to a path. Middle school CTE courses allow students to start developing basic career skills, including leadership and collaboration. Often, CTE teaches students basic life skills, including planning, budgeting and money management. By starting CTE courses in middle school, students can learn they have options available to them.
Last week, the Democratic caucus in the West Virginia Senate introduced eight bills to improve public education in our state. Senate Bill 1031, if brought to the floor and passed, will authorize development of a competitive grant program for CTE in our middle schools. The bill allows faculty to evaluate the needs of students, develop a curriculum and apply for funding. It also establishes a program to encourage businesses and organizations to contribute to expansion of the grant fund. The grant is designed to provide the local flexibility needed to be successful, an additional theme we repeatedly heard during the education forums and listening tours.
As we meet in special session on Saturday, it is my great hope that my colleagues in the Senate will join together to strengthen public education. We know that there is no quick fix that will turn West Virginia around overnight. It will take recognition of the difficult issues facing our people, followed by hard work and cooperation, to find solutions that will unite us, not contribute to a further divide.