Jobs hang in the balance with Georgia education reform

Jesus Vazquez guided an eyeball-scorching flame, and the room crackled with noise as he tried to control a molten bead of metal that would determine success or failure.

A lot of kids like him wind up behind a burger counter or in other low-wage jobs, but this Hall County high school student wants something better, and this welding practice at a community college could help him get it. He enrolled in a new program that could lead to work with one of Gainesville’s better-paying employers. It’s the kind of opportunity that some leaders are hoping to give other teenagers across Georgia who wouldn’t otherwise have a shot at such training or at college.

As Georgia education, business and political leaders keep pushing for work-ready graduates, they are expanding programs such as dual enrollment — when high school students can simultaneously take classes at other institutions as a way to get ahead academically or economically. Georgia recently changed laws to streamline funding and encourage more students to take advantage of dual enrollment. And pilot programs such as this one could be expanded when the General Assembly acts on education reform in 2016.

“They say I have no credits for a regular high school diploma,” said Vazquez, 18, adding, “If I do get certified in welding, I could get a job at Kubota.”

The heavy equipment manufacturer is expanding, and hiring. It’s taken on several other students from Vazquez’s school, the Lanier Career Academy. Teens there can enroll in this new program, a joint venture between Hall County Schools and Lanier Technical College, even if they don’t have the academic background that college requires. They aren’t getting college credit, but they are learning high-demand skills that might set them on a career path — and encourage them to earn their high school diplomas or attend college someday.

That’s the hope of Will Schofield, the superintendent of schools in Hall, who created the program with Lanier Tech president Ray Perren. Schofield noticed that many students who might benefit from the state’s dual-enrollment programs lacked the academic requirements to enroll in college courses.

Many get discouraged and drop out out or they earn their diplomas and take menial jobs. Later, they have families and realize they need to earn more. By then, college isn’t really an option.

“There was really no option for these kids,” he said.

He and Perren worked with businesses to develop the program, which offers a welding certificate that is recognized only by local employers.

Kubota has already hired three graduates from the first class of a dozen students who attended last summer, said their instructor, Jerry Owen, an adjunct professor at Lanier Tech. New welders earn around $40,000 a year plus benefits, he said. “That’s pretty good for a kid who doesn’t have a high school diploma.”

Tim McDonald, the vice president of economic development for the college, said the program is a model for others to copy. For instance, there is a shortage of welders across Georgia, and the governor’s office has prioritized meeting that demand. There is more at stake, though.

“How do we provide something to this population of young people who otherwise are going to end up being unproductive or even worse,” McDonald said. “The bigger issue here is to give these kids hope.”

Schofield promoted the program when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to his Education Reform Commission. Among the many policy recommendations that emerged in November was one to establish a statewide certificate like the one in Hall. Currently, the certificate earned by students there is not recognized outside the county, and Schofield said this recommendation would change that.

Barbara Wall, the Georgia Department of Education official over career-prep programs, said that if the state moves forward on that recommendation, officials will find businesses eager to participate. A skills gap in more fields than just welding has created momentum in her agency to produce more career-oriented courses. For instance, the state school board recently voted in December to let students earn math, science and even foreign language credit for taking any of three computer courses.

“Now, more than any time in history, we’re seeing business and industry really wanting to get involved in our career technical programs — at earlier ages,” she said.

Doug Roper, a school board member in Vidalia and president of the Georgia School Boards Association, said public school leaders are increasingly accepting a need for career-oriented schooling, like the welding program in Hall.

“For a long time, there’s been the idea that if you don’t go to college you’re a failure,” he said, “and I think we’re going to get away from that.”