IC’s State of the Schools: Business help wanted

Seven area educational leaders took on early childhood education, career and college readiness, and social and emotional learning at the Feb. 27 State of the Schools event aimed at helping build tomorrow’s workforce. PHOTO KATHARINE CARLON

By Katharine Carlon

IOWA CITY—Building tomorrow’s workforce today was the focus of a comprehensive State of the Schools presentation late last month, highlighting the critical importance of early childhood education, career and college readiness, and social and emotional learning in a rapidly shifting landscape.

“We live in a rapidly changing world where technology, automation and artificial intelligence are reshaping the workplace,” said Jennifer Banta, vice president of the Iowa City Area Business Partnership, which teamed up with the Iowa City Area Development Group for a “State of the Schools” event bringing Corridor administrators and leaders together for a frank discussion on K-12 education challenges and opportunities relevant to the business community.

“We need to ensure that our students are ready for the future and have the opportunity to practice the 21st century skills needed to succeed,” she continued. “We also know there are increasing levels of stress and anxiety for students which makes social emotional learning an important part of their educational experience. And community partnerships play a critical role in that endeavor.”

Frederick Newell

Held at the Englert Theatre Feb. 27 and moderated by Dan Clay, dean of the University of Iowa College of Education, the event featured a slate of experts, including: Matt Degner, assistant superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District; Janet Godwin, ICCSD School Board president and chief operating officer of ACT; Mark Moody, principal at Clear Creek-Amana High School; Jim Larimore, chief officer of ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning; Davis Eidahl, superintendent of Solon Community Schools; and Frederick Newell, executive director of Dream City, an Iowa City nonprofit offering programming to youth and families.

The event was a chance to showcase what educators are doing right when it comes to addressing the region’s critical employment needs.

ICCSD, for example, is working with stakeholders to develop a “Portrait of a Graduate” – what Mr. Degner described as a sort of “North Star” of skills and abilities students need to graduate and transition to college or a career successfully. The district also recently passed a new comprehensive equity, diversity and inclusion plan aimed at “closing the opportunity gap for structurally disadvantaged students.”

Solon has created a Mental Health Advisory Council to increase the social, emotional, mental health and behavioral well-being of students through an integrated system of supports. And Clear Creek-Amana is making a concerted effort to infuse 21st-century skills into math and science classrooms.

But it was the tougher challenges, the ones that will take a village of educators and business leaders to solve, that were the main thrust of the event.

Early childhood education

The idea that “the path to good education and a successful career starts right at birth” is not controversial, Mr. Clay said. All scientific evidence points to the 0-5 years as the most significant in human development, and the business community is clamoring for solutions addressing both the childcare gaps of today and the workforce needs of the future.

Janet Godwin

“The benefits are clear,” said Ms. Godwin, noting ICCSD has been a steadfast and longtime advocate for universal pre-K. “When students can come together, begin learning and engaging with each other, and build up social and academic skills as early as age three, the research shows that by the time [they] hit kindergarten, they are well-prepared and ready to further their educational career.”

Yet universal pre-K has languished on legislative wish lists for years, the victim of not enough funding, not enough space, lack of adequate transportation and other barriers.

Clear Creek-Amana has been able to solve at least part of the transportation piece. Thanks to a grant, the district now offers special preschool busing, expanding access and removing a significant barrier for families unable to drive their kids to and from school during work hours. Unfortunately, a lack of space and difficulty attracting and retaining enough staff trained in working with very young children forced the district to make the unpopular decision of going to two sessions of half-day preschool last year.

Mr. Newell has seen what a lack of early childhood education can do to a student in his capacity as City High specialist for the iJAG program, which mentors students at high risk of disengaging from or dropping out of school.

“It’s one of the greatest barriers outside of housing,” he said. “Kids that don’t go had nothing between age 0 and 5, aren’t picking up basic reading skills until third and fourth grade, and are being left behind.”

Citing the example of a senior he worked with who graduated reading on a second-grade level, Mr. Newell said universal, all-day pre-K was essential now. Half-day programs, while better than nothing, effectively eliminate many of the families he works with on a daily basis because parents’ jobs make it impossible to leave midday, some have no vehicle at all, and the cost of taxis or Uber make participation “undoable.”

“There’s no time to close the gap later,” he said. “It’s something that we need to look at right now.”

Jim Larimore

Mr. Larimore suggested that access to early childhood education was not a challenge schools or the business community would be able to solve alone. Hope Starts Here, a Detroit-area program aimed at addressing a 22,000-person shortage of early education staffers, is one example of a broad community-based initiative.

“They’ve started to map where the people who need those services most actually live, to try to think about can we put something in a neighborhood that’s within walkable distance, or a shorter bus trip or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And now they’re starting to connect up K-12 and post-secondary pathways to train people to begin to be ready for those jobs. I think that’s the kind of smart, metro area-wide regional planning that is going to become more important here in Iowa City-Cedar Rapids Corridor. We’re seeing big demand among employers for that kind of approach.”

College and career readiness

Sky-high higher education costs are driving students to identify interests and career paths at an ever-earlier age. At the same time, 65% of today’s 12-year-olds will be employed in occupations that don’t even exist yet.

Facing a cloudy crystal ball, what more can educators do to ensure students are prepared for the economy of tomorrow?

At Solon Community Schools, part of the answer involves an Individual Career and Academic Planning initiative delivering specialized curriculum to 9th-12th graders, including parent-teacher conferences that involve the whole team of parents, educators and students in career and college planning.

Davis Eidahl

“They walk through the interest inventory, they walk through the next year course planning guide, Kirkwood opportunities, job shadowing, internships … all the opportunities we provide,” said Mr. Eidahl, adding that the new future-focused approach has driven participation in parent-teacher conferences up to 68% from 20%. “Step one has been really engaging parents and children with planning.”

Mr. Degner and others said a key piece of preparing students was simply exposing them to real-life job experiences, whether through job shadows and internships via Kirkwood Community College’s Workplace Learning Connection or financial literacy fairs, career fairs and other events.

“But those job shadows and internships only happen for a fraction of our students, and I think that’s an area where … we open up some greater access and create more opportunities for students,” he said, adding the district also hoped to offer teacher training in partnership with ICR Iowa focused on work-based learning. “We want [teachers] to have access to the current trends in the field, the kind of skills kids need to be successful in areas that might align with their interests, so that filters into our classrooms.”

Mark Moody

Mr. Moody said Clear Creek-Amana has made that same concerted effort to link student interests with real-life experiences, giving science students time in a university laboratory and launching an agricultural education program, as just two examples. The high school is also beginning to offer “blended learning” courses that take place mostly online, allowing kids to work at their own pace and style, while learning personal responsibility, time budgeting and comfort with technology.

Mr. Newell, whose focus is on less-advantaged students, asked business leaders to help give his students at least one “Circle 3” experience – a three-week or longer internship. Ms. Godwin added that the ICCSD school board is ready to listen to the business community.

“I’ll be a broken record and say that funding is not infinite, and we have to prioritize and make choices,” she said. “But when people come to community comment and advocate for fine arts or ag programs, the board listens, and our district administration, we listen. Come and say, ‘I need data analysts, I need marketing people, I need machine learning folk.’ Be an advocate, be strong, so that we can take it into our planning process.”

 Social and emotional learning

With suicide rates on the rise, 70% of teens reporting anxiety or depression and the omnipresent pressure of social media, Mr. Clay framed childhood mental health and social well-being as “the single biggest issue we face right now in our education system.”

Mr. Moody said the past decade has been “a double-edged sword” for students, with technological and cultural advances bringing more opportunities and more activities at the cost of higher stress.

“I’m not sure that [kids] have the skills to manage that busyness as well as navigating social media that is coming at an earlier and earlier age,” he said. “For us as an educational institution … we have an obligation to give them [teachers] professional training. And I think a bigger dialogue needs to happen between educational and post-secondary institutions that are getting those candidates ready for us.”

Matt Degner

Mr. Degner said students present at school on a continuum, some with several adverse childhood experiences, others simple suffering from the “busyness” Mr. Moody described or self-imposed or parental-imposed pressure to succeed. While ICCSD’s mental health supports and services are “outstanding and robust” and the district has taken steps to lower student stress – including delaying the start of the secondary schedule to 9 a.m., based on sleep studies – “it’s still not enough.”

“The fundamental thing we didn’t solve is all the things compacted into that student’s day,” he said. “We’ve just shifted the window; we haven’t fixed the fundamental problem. I think that’s a big social emotional piece for kids, this terrible imbalance and how are they managing stress and pressure, developing coping skills, as well as social media – getting hit with that constant need for instant gratification or instant response.”

Schools are part of a coordinated effort to support mental health and social learning issues, Mr. Larimore said, with students spending a third of their waking hours there about half of the time. But parents and the wider community must also play a role connecting schools with resources, and business also has a role to play.

“I wonder whether there should be some support [for parents] in the workplace,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure to being a parent, but I don’t think that we really think as systematically or in as connected a way, systematically, as the future is going to require us to do.”