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A new grant will help students decide what to do after 12 years of school.


Local employers need smart, educated workers. High school and college graduates need good jobs. Somehow, though, the two keep missing each other.

``We have kids graduating from school who really don't have a clue as to what it is they want to do,' said Sylvia Anderson, director of Guilford County Schools tech prep program. ``We need to change this.'At the insistence of local industry, Guilford school officials have been addressing the work force preparation question for more than a year. The effort received another boost recently with a $220,000 federal grant for teacher training and curriculum reform.

The grant will enable teachers, counselors and principals to visit local industries and companies to observe the work that goes on. With a better understanding of the skills needed to thrive in such settings, those educators will then devise ways to integrate that knowledge into how subjects are taught.

The result: Career awareness will begin in elementary school. The development of career plans will take place in middle school. And a focused course of study, apprenticeships and student workplace visits will occur throughout high school.

``This grant is a move to make sure all students have some type of work-based learning and experiences related to a career interest,' Anderson said. For the goals to be met, for example, math teachers must to able to effectively answer that age-old question from students: ``Why do I need to know algebra or geometry?' The answer will come in explaining how math is used by machinists, engineers and architects in their work.

The $220,000 grant is part of $3.75 million that came to North Carolina from the federal departments of Education and Labor under the 1994 National School-to-Work Opportunity Act.

The Guilford grant, the largest to any county in the state, was made to the local JobReady Partnership Council. The three-year-old council is composed of local business and education leaders intent on bringing about education reform.

``We are looking to change the way we prepare kids for the work force,' said Bob Mackey, president of Burckhardt America, a Greensboro metalworking company, and chairman of the JobReady Council. ``The grant money is seed capital to create programs we need, and to improve programs we already have.'

``This is a giant step in the right direction,' added schools Superintendent Jerry Weast.

The federal grant is the latest example of the fundamental changes being instigated by Weast and GTCC President Don Cameron in the local school system. For example:

Weast has placed a greater emphasis on academic rigor, beginning in kindergarten. So-called ``reading recovery' programs are being used in elementary schools to ensure that all students can read by the end of second grade.

Middle schools are placing a greater emphasis on core subjects such as math, science, social studies and communications skills, and offering more language classes.

The much-maligned general education track in high school is being phased out in favor of the tech-prep curriculum, which matches college prep in academic rigor, but offers advanced math and sciences instead of language studies.

A two-year apprenticeship program for high school juniors interested in metalworking careers began last fall with 28 students. The program now serves as a model for apprenticeship programs being planned for electrical work, textiles, furniture-making, automotive repair and banking. Each program will receive funding from private industry.

In January, the national Ciba Foundation awarded Guilford County schools $136,000 over three years to improve its technical courses, retrain teachers and counselors, and provide GTCC scholarships in technical fields.

Weast has set a goal of having 1,000 apprenticeship slots for Guilford high school students within five years; there will be about 100 apprentices next fall. Cameron has set a goal of offering GTCC scholarships to all high school graduates with good grades and an interest in technical careers.

Kelly Foley, an administrator in Gov. Hunt's Commission on Workforce Preparedness in Raleigh, said the plans and programs being implemented in Guilford County are among the most advanced in the state.

That's why Guilford received the largest JobReady grant, she said.

The national school-to-work initiative has its roots in the fear that American industry is finding it harder to compete in the global economy because the quality of workers is not keeping pace with the sophisticated level of work that needs to be done.

The solution, political and business leaders argue, is in schooling that better prepares students to work.

``Student apathy is one of the most important problems that teachers encounter,' said Gerald Pumphrey, GTCC's director of work force preparedness.

``We hope that by connecting school with the world of work, we can change that apathy,' Pumphrey said.

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