Community offers suggestions for school readiness programs at World Cafe

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 | 10:40 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — When Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher addressed community members at Columbia Public Schools' World Cafe on Wednesday, he started the night off with a pop quiz:

Did they know anyone with an adult child living at home because they were unemployed?

The majority of those in the room raised their hands.

Did they know anyone with a child pursuing post-secondary coursework because they couldn't find a job after college?

Another wave of hands filled the room.

"The world of work has changed since many of us graduated and chose a career path," Belcher said. "We need to figure out what Columbia Public Schools' role is in feeding students into the job market."

The 194 people who attended the district's World Cafe at Stoney Creek Inn and Conference Center discussed the role of public schools in career and college readiness programs. They divided into 8-person discussion groups led by School Board members and district guests,  rotating groups three times throughout the night to analyze students' needs from the district.

Designed to prepare students for their lives outside of standard K-12 education, the goals of readiness programs vary — including admission to a 4-year university, introduction to 2-year certificate programs or preparation for post-diploma careers.

For the district, however, readiness means answering the needs of its "costumers," Belcher told the School Board at its meeting before Wednesday's forum.

The district hosts World Cafes a few times a year to facilitate discussions among community members about changes they want to see in the district. Some of those discussions have included school bus schedules, district finances, intermediate school programs and the achievement gap.

This time, the district prompted attendees with three questions:

  • What compensation, benefits and supports are necessary for someone to be successful in college or in the workforce?
  • What skills and knowledge separate low-wage from middle class?
  • What does the district need to do to help students succeed?

After discussing the questions, community members offered a few suggestions for future district programming:

  • Students need the vocational training and life skill support to prepare them for careers after they graduate. Some of those skills should include basic financial knowledge — such as writing checks and filing taxes — while others should give them hands-on practice in the workplace. They should also learn interviewing skills and basic workplace etiquette. Attendees suggested creating high school internship programs with local businesses and using career counseling to guide students to jobs that fit their interests.
  • Students need community support to help them transition into the workforce. They should have mentors they can turn to for guidance and instruction as they apply for jobs and navigate workplace networking. Mentors and other community members should hold students accountable for their own education but also be willing to encourage them when they need support.
  • Students need the opportunity to connect their interests to careers. Although the district exposes students to different learning styles, such as online classes and technology-centered curriculum, students need to find a way to connect that exposure to their futures. They should feel empowered to do better because of the opportunities the district can provide the students.

The School Board plans to analyze the data collected at Wednesday's forum and create a strategic plan for the district based on that information.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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