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From aquariums to turbines: Inside next-gen high-tech education

Any recent college grad will tell you: today’s job market is tough. Sure, the national unemployment rate is dropping, but globalization and lingering economic uncertainties aren’t exactly lighting up the job boards, particularly in maker professions—manufacturing, for example.

No matter what path students choose after college, a few realities are unavoidable. For starters, a college education, whether through a community college or a four-year university, is a must. Which brings us, regrettably, to reality no. 2: College is expensive. You know the numbers: seven of 10 college graduates leave school with student-loan debt. The most recent figures from the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success peg the average student debt load at nearly $30,000 per borrower—not exactly pocket change.

As student debt mounts, lawmakers and educators alike are looking to stem the tide. A conscious effort is underway to better prepare K12 students for college and work. One recent example is President Obama’s focus on coding in the classroom.

At the local level, school districts are scratching to get students ahead of the curve. Through forward-thinking partnerships with local businesses and universities, career-minded learners can glean valuable work-life experiences, many even earn college credit.

We spend an inordinate amount of time on this blog and elsewhere talking about the importance of community engagement in schools. But that engagement goes well beyond just listening and responding to stakeholders. A truly engaged community works together to topple the collective challenges it faces, be it social or economic or both.

That’s what’s happening in Iowa, at the Des Moines Public Schools Central Campus.

A win-win
Larry Beall, a wind turbine instructor at Des Moines Public Schools Central Campus sees what young job seekers go through in his community. As he told The 74 for a story, “When I went to high school, I could just get a job at a plant. Now you need at least some kind of secondary degree to be able to compete.” As the 74 points out, Iowa has struggled to produce college graduates.

Central Campus enrolls 1,500 students from districts across the region, each of whom can choose from one of 39 career technical programs designed to increase their value and college and career trajectory post-graduation.

The school, built with the help of a federal grant, offers fields of study as diverse as marine biology and fashion. Students get hands-on training by working at local businesses. They can earn college credit or even an associate’s degree.

The opportunity that Central Campus offers isn’t lost on students—as evidenced by the school’s impressive 98 percent attendance rate. As Assistant Director of Central Campus Aiddy Kott Phomvisay told reporters, “It’s a win-win for business, for Iowa and for students.”

The video below (also from The 74) shows why the students and instructors alike are enthusiastic about the program.

The power of partnerships
It’s impossible to undersell the value of community collaboration and partnership.

K12 schools can, and should, leverage the resources of local businesses, universities, or other organizations to enrich student learning and create career opportunities for graduates.

What is your district doing to collaborate with business leaders and others in your community? Tell us in the comments.

Want to provide a forum for community members and others to approach you about special projects or potential partnerships? Here’s an easy way to do just that.