Business of Politics

Schooling the Workforce

by Jeremy Alford

While the Legislature debates dual enrollment provisions for the governor’s workforce development package, a rural high school in Vernon Parish is already offering college credits and advanced training in a unique way – all without a government mandate.

Megan Ward has already completed two semesters of college at Northwestern State University, which wouldn’t be a spectacular accomplishment if she wasn’t still a senior in high school. In fact, while Louisiana’s college freshmen, many of whom undoubtedly envy her 26 hours of credits, were prepping for algebra and English finals last week, Ward was decorating Simpson High School for graduation ceremonies along with her friends. “I did it because I didn’t want to waste my time here,” she says. “Plus, the school pays for the books and everything else. I basically got my first year of college for free just by putting forth some extra effort.”

Simpson High School, a small, rural, K-12 outfit with approximately 400 enrolled students, could easily be the poster child for Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ongoing initiative to revamp Louisiana’s workforce development efforts. The governor has placed a significant value on dual enrollment and outreach programs that not only endeavor to prepare students for the labor market but also seek to introduce them to some form of higher education or advanced training as a way of life after high school. Jindal has proposed at least $4.5 million, along with considerable human resources, for such projects, which would bring universities and technical and community colleges into the classroom like never before.

While Simpson would be the perfect face for Jindal’s push, the reality is that one has nothing to do with the other. The high school’s staff and principal were proactive in setting up the school’s unique curriculum, which includes joint ventures with community and technical colleges as well, long before Jindal made workforce development a buzz phrase. Simpson is proof that Louisiana’s schools don’t necessarily need a government mandate to enhance their offerings and better the labor market — they just need some drive, well-placed partnerships and a faculty willing to prod, encourage and generally go the extra mile.

That’s not to say Jindal’s plans aren’t being welcomed with open arms, says Principal David Lewis. It’s just an uneasy truth that Louisiana’s schools are missing out on golden opportunities that can be implemented with little or no money. In recent years, many high school students have graduated with six to 15 hours of college credits — Ward is the exception with 26 hours. “We are quite normal in our make-up, and I don’t feel as though we have done anything really exceptional that cannot be replicated at other schools,” says Lewis, who has led Simpson for more than 11 years. Prior to that, he was a teacher at Baker and Central high schools. “But it is a great accomplishment, and I have high praise for our faculty and students. We have gone the route of preparing our students for the future, and any other normal school can make the same happen.”

A significant number of the college credits being racked up by Simpson students come from Advanced Placement classes. Simpson partnered with LSU and the Department of Education, which were actually looking for schools to participate, to start offering the courses last fall. The cost to Simpson? Zilch. The state already has Advanced Placement Incentive Program Grants in place, he says, which paid for training and textbooks. It’s only a three-year program, but Lewis has already started making budget changes to pick up the minimal expenses in 2010. “Whatever that annual cost might be, it’ll be money well spent,” says Lewis.

Simpson also receives the other lion’s share of its credits through the Louisiana Virtual School, another program sponsored by the state Department of Education in partnership with the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. LVS courses utilize the Internet, e-mail and other online and offline resources for standards-based high school courses. Lewis says LVS was first used at Simpson to help students receive two years of a foreign language, such as Spanish, when a full-time, certified instructor couldn’t be found. “The students needed those credits for the TOPS scholarship anyway, so it was a good match,” he adds.

Today, the LVS is being promoted at Simpson as a way for certain students to get senior-level classes out of the way so college-level classes can be tackled while still in high school. The fall 2008 semester block has more than two dozen offerings, from astronomy to fine arts. Again, start-up costs were practically nothing. Lewis was able to convince the Vernon Parish School Board to buy computers to expand their existing lab. Moreover, the LVS program recently received a generous $2.5 million grant from the AT&T Foundation, which made an additional 4,500 seats available to Louisiana students for the 2007-08 school year and also added new online course offerings.

One of the more innovative methods at Simpson involves the MathXL program, which the school pairs up with LSU in Baton Rouge to offer. MathXL is a two-semester, Web-based program that runs the school about $12 per student. The Vernon Parish School Board had to approve advanced textbooks for the courses, but students are now taking college-level algebra and trigonometry classes. There are 12 seniors and five juniors at Simpson currently enrolled. Phoebe Rouse, LSU’s precalculus mathematics coordinator, says the program is constantly expanding, and the training of teachers comes free-of-charge — plus, the educators get a stipend during the training, so there’s something for everyone. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort on the part of the teacher to get this started,” Rouse says.

Finally, looking to its own backyard, Simpson collaborated with Northwestern State University through its campus at Fort Polk to offer dual-enrollment courses for math and English. Students provide their own transportation and take classes on a college schedule, usually in the mornings. It’s just another extension of Simpson’s success, which came without a hefty workforce development package passed by the Legislature. Lewis says the extra help from Jindal will be a blessing to many schools when it’s implemented, but notes they could have been proactive in the meantime.

Just take a look at what is already out there, Lewis adds, and don’t feel restricted by what the state and local school board want. “Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone,” he says. “That’s when great things happen.”

Contact Jeremy Alford at [email protected]