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Grant aims at workforce

When numerous job applicants can’t answer a company’s question, “What is 50 percent of 100?” it is time to educate Oregon’s children differently, says Dan Spatz, development director for Columbia Gorge Community College.

He said it was disturbing to learn from a Hood River company that potential employees not only couldn’t answer simple questions but many did not know how to use a tape measure.

Spatz said blaming public schools for the problem is too simplistic because many kindergarteners are showing up in class unprepared to learn.

The end result of continuing economic woes that have forced schools to eliminate vocational programs and have kept many families in survival mode is that the state, as the nation, lacks a skilled workforce. And companies that cannot rely upon finding employees to meet production needs will not come to Oregon — and tough financial times will continue.

“There are many factors at play here and we need to break this cycle,” said Spatz.

According to a CNN report called “Restoring the American Dream” that was put together in late 2011, 25 percent of students who start high school do not graduate. In 2008, the U.S. was the only developed nation where a higher percent of 55-64-year-olds than 25-34-year-olds earned diplomas.

Thirty percent of American teens who do graduate do not receive any form of higher education training and earn only 60 percent of what a college graduate makes each year.

Also reported was that 43 percent of students who start college will not graduate in six years. Although the United States once led the world in college graduates, that number has flat-lined and, meanwhile, other nations have caught up and some have pulled ahead.

On the local level, 60 percent of North Wasco County School District 21 high school seniors graduated on time with a regular diploma in 2012, and 12 percent more received a modified diploma or other alternative. Statewide, Oregon’s on-time graduation rate was 68 percent, with districts performing anywhere from 43 percent in Lebanon to 95 percent in Adrian.

Spatz said the college recently received $45,000 from the Oregon Education Investment Board, another tool to help overcome educational barriers. The money is to be used for a project tied to development of a Regional Achievement Collaborative, which creates a partnership between colleges, business, industry, schools, family service agencies, early childhood development specialists and community members.

The end goal of this partnership is to foster problem-solving dialogue that leads to continuous improvement in the educational system.

The collaboratives are the next step in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s “40-40-20” plan. He has set a goal to make Oregon “one of the best educated citizenries in the world” by 2025. The Legislature approved his plan in 2011 that has 40 percent of adults in the state earning at least a bachelor’s degree, 40 percent receiving an associate’s or postsecondary certificate and 20 percent obtaining at least a high school diploma or equivalent.

Achievement compacts tied to the 40-40-20 goal replaced the No Child Left Behind mandates after Oregon sought a waiver from the federal government. The new accountability model requires K-12 schools to attain a 100 percent graduation rate by 2025.

A growing awarness of the need to improve worker skills has led to development of public and private partnerships that link science, engineering, English and math lessons to real-life applications.

The hope of state officials and educators is to generate more career interest among high school student in these fields is also being furthered by the college. Local efforts toward that end are being organized through the Columbia River Gorge Regional Center of Innovation, which also includes a cross-section of members.

“Some kids are good classroom learners and some need more hands-on lessons so we are trying to give them those,” said Spatz.

Another major effort being made by the innovation center, which will also be part of the collaborative, is to align a “P-3” curriculum that ensures a seamless transition between preschool and elementary school.

Matthew Solomon, director of the Mid-Columbia Children’s Council, which operates 12 Head Start centers in the region that provide services to more than 500 children from lower-income families, is excited about the state’s new focus.

“Children are like little scientists, they are constantly exploring their world to see how things work,” he said.

“They grow 30 percent of their brain in the first five years of life so that is the time to put more of an investment into their development.”

Solomon said if young children can be taught how to adapt, work in groups and problem-solve, they will be more successful in school and in life. His agency is now meeting regularly with administrators from North Wasco County School District 21 and the Hood River School District to assess areas where Head Start centers can focus to overcome learning challenges.

“We are developing teaching strategies, along with outcome and assessment measures to see if our children are entering school and meeting state goals,” he said.

Not only is the children’s council working with area educators, Solomon said the agency is also interacting regularly with parents who are seen as the “first and primary” teacher of a child.

He said having early educators involved in the collaborative an innovation center adds another piece to the puzzle of training a workforce that can meet the global market demands of the 21st century.

He said information and practical assistance is provided to parents in order to help them create lifelong learners who will be high achievers.

Spatz said not every child will go on to college and somehow the state needs to find funding to restore vocational programs to teach students skills, such as carpentry and metal work, that make them eligible for a job with good wages.

He said those types of training projects might be restored through partnerships with businesses and industries involved in the collaborative.

“The bottom line is that we need to be asking, “What skills do employers need?’ and then finding ways for school districts at all levels to provide those skills,” he said.

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