School-to-work plans gain momentum in Minnesota

ST. PAUL (AP) — School-to-work programs are gaining momentum in Minnesota and across the country as a way to let middle school and high school students dabble in different careers and tailor their education.
The movement is a collaboration among employers, teachers, school officials, local government leaders and others trying to create a web of workplace mentorship programs, school courses and career counseling.
The end result, supporters hope, is a way to give students more information about a variety of career options.
Detractors, however, fear that school-to-work is just another way to put certain students — particularly poor and minority teenagers — on a less-demanding academic track and steer them toward vocations instead of four-year college programs. They call the practice tracking.
Eugene Piccolo, assistant commissioner in the Office of Lifework at the state Department of Children, Families and Learning, dismisses the concerns.
“I would argue we’ve been (tracking) for ages. We just don’t acknowledge it,” Piccolo said. “What school-to-work is all about is saying to all of those kids, Here’s all of the opportunities.'”
The state has identified five “career clusters” in Minnesota where job growth is expected in the coming years: health care, precision manufacturing, computer software, printing and graphics and taconite production.
Students who choose to explore health care careers, for example, would be connected to a facility and have the chance to experience all jobs — from maintenance to accounting to nursing to brain surgery.
“For some people it’s college prep. For some people, it’s going to a two-year program, either at a community college or a technical school,” Piccolo said.
Counseling may be the weak link in the chain, though. Middle schools and high schools typically have one guidance counselor for several hundred students. And these days, that person usually spends his or her time doing social or crisis counseling rather than academic or career counseling.
In response, the Legislature has asked the state’s education department to come up with a plan to address career development in schools and the role and caseload of guidance counselors. The department will report to the Legislature in January.
Backers of the vocational component of school-to-work see nothing wrong in steering interested students toward careers in the skilled trades — especially since there are good jobs available.
“It’s hard to find anybody,” said Tom Spaehn, a Pratt Homes construction foreman. “When I first got into this field, everybody was getting into it and it was tough to get a job. When I graduated from vocational school up in Alexandria, there were five of us who had jobs out of 40 kids. And now the graduating classes up there are between 25 and 30, and there are probably five job offers per kid,” he said.