Driving Educational Innovation Through Local Business Partnerships

The Challenge

For many years K-12 education has operated in a silo configuration.  Often schools and academic departments have worked in isolation with the overriding dual focus of achieving higher test scores and sending more students to four-year universities. Data does not lie.  Data shows that what we have done in the past has not worked for Catawba County Schools.  As of 2013, only 14.2% of our young adults had successfully obtained a four-year degree.  Over a 35 year period, our 18 to 34 age community suffered as their annual median earnings fell to $26,863.  As a result, this age group slowly and methodically move away in order to secure a better future.  Of the remaining young adults, 19.8% were living in poverty.

Why Not Blame The Economy?

Like much of the United States, Catawba County experienced a major economic downturn starting in 2008.  Many would like to believe that the Great Recession is to blame for our poor educational outcomes.  Once again, the data does not add up.  As you can see from the above charts, our downward spiral started long before our economy came into play.  By the end of 2013, Catawba County industries were once again back in business. Catawba County has been consistently ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the lowest in the nation for Cost of Doing Business.  Since 2006, the MSA has ranked no lower than 6th in the nation and was #1 in 2014.  According to the Council for Community and Economic Research, the Cost of Living Index for the Catawba County metro area is 85.6 compare to 100 in the US. Property tax rates in Catawba County range from combined rates (City and County) of $0.955 to $1.1415 per $100 valuation with no additional school or fire district taxes.  By comparison, the combined tax rate in Charlotte, NC is $1.2944 with additional district taxes depending on location.  Our region also ranks 15th out of 74 US cities for the lowest manufacturing tax burden. Outlook Americas has ranked three Catawba County municipalities in the top five Best Manufacturing Small Towns in the Country. (Source: http://www.catawbaedc.org/)

While industry recovered, our young adults were still moving away or did not have the skills required to secure a high-wage, high-skilled job.

A New Approach

Change is scary but we as a district have embraced the unknown and pledged to make a difference in our children's futures.  Our students do not need high scores and degrees as much as they need high-wage careers and opportunities.  Business and industry supply these opportunities.  We have to build the pathways and make those educational connections.  This type of challenge requires a team effort from top to bottom.  Departments are reaching out to other departments, elementary schools are connecting with middle and high, and as a district we are connecting to our local colleges and municipalities. Most of all, we are calling on business and industry to lead the charge and guide our students to career opportunities of tomorrow's economy. We are making this call to the outside world from Career Technical Education.

Career Technical Education (CTE) is not what it use to be.  If you believe that it is then you are doing it all wrong.  Today in Catawba County, CTE is responsible for delivering aquiponics, agriscience, nursing fundamentals, robotics, computer science, engineering and much more.  All of our program areas link directly to real-world career opportunities.  We are taking those links and turning them into pathways that lead straight the the employers' doors while still in school. 

Catawba County Schools has the largest work-based learning program in the state of North Carolina.  This school year we have more than 700 students participating in job-shadows, internships, or apprenticeships hosted by 134 local businesses.  In partnership with Catawba Valley Community College, we are taking all of our middle school students on the Extreme S.T.E.M. tours.  Students are able to see real career opportunities at a young age, plan educational pathways to those careers, then actually give the job a try before leaving high school.  Engineering apprenticeship programs like Apprenticeship Catawba allow our students to get free college with a guaranteed job upon completion.

Again, the numbers tell the story.  Increasing our business connectivity has produced great results.  The infographic below shows that we now rank at the top among school districts of similar size (affinity group) within North Carolina.  Last school year we had 100% placement into jobs or post secondary education among our economically disadvantaged CTE concentrators.

We Must Think Like CEOs

Today, educating our students is not just a challenge and responsibility, it is a business.  New legislation has forced us into a competitive market.  Parents and students are our customers and we must meet their demands with high quality products.  Losing one student to an outside agency will cost our district more than $6,000 annually and possibly cost our community a future productive citizen.  Again we have turned to our business community to help solidify our competitive position.  This school year we have formed The Education Foundation For Catawba County (http://www.catawbaed.org/).  Our foundation consist of a group of business and community leaders whose focus is to provide Catawba County Schools' students with innovative learning opportunities. The education foundation will support promising educational practices, working with our teachers and with our community business partners, funding a range of projects from teacher classroom grants to district-wide educational opportunities.

Now that we have changed our direction, retooled our thinking, and learned to work as a unified educational force to be reckoned with, we are laser focused on the single thread that ties all of our efforts and initiatives together - Technology. 

Our K12 Technology Initiative

We realize that technology is ubiquitous, touching every part of our lives.  Our students are provided an experience like no other before them, having access to a world of knowledge at their fingertips.  Our goal is to provide a safe and stimulating environment that will help our students acquire the skills they need to survive in a complex, highly technological knowledge-based economy.

In order to provide this type of environment we have to be able to provide consistent, frictionless access to knowledge.  This has led us to build a high density wireless network in every classroom, in every school.  This infrastructure is crucial in today’s classroom as we see increases of mobile devices each year.  By the end of 2016, we will have wireless access points in every classroom in every school within Catawba County Schools.  

In saying this, we are careful not to focus on the idea that devices will be a magic bullet, that putting a laptop or tablet in front of our students will solve all our problems.  Ubiquitous technology is much more than just providing a device per child.  It is more about opportunities for students and teachers to become active participants in learning.  It is in this thought that we have began to pilot innovative programs within our school system.

With such a strong technology presence in CTE middle and high schools, we wanted to look at aligning our elementary schools with opportunities.  If we could promote basics of computer science at an earlier age, our students would have even more opportunities at the middle and high school level.  Our approach to this is two fold. 

STEAM Lab pilot

One of our schools currently has a STEAM lab as a rotation class.  This lab is staffed by a certified teacher and sees every student Pre-K through 6th grade on a weekly basis.  During this time, students are able to get a more hands-on approach on many of the basics they are already learning within their core subjects.  The students teacher is also involved in this process as they are required to be present along with the STEAM lab coordinator.  We believe this is crucial as it allows a tighter integration of technology, science, math and the arts into the curriculum they are teaching.  One particular area of interest that is being brought into this lab is the addition of a coding and robotics curriculum.  Students will be exposed to coding foundations as early as the age of five.

Coding Workshops for Teachers

Secondly, we are providing coding workshops for teachers. These workshops are not focused on technology or CTE teachers.  In fact, we have had a wide range that teach from Kindergarten all the way through high school attend these sessions.  The coding workshop is focused on integration ideas that can be utilized within all grade levels and subjects.  Many times, teachers see activities that they already use within the classroom but are given ideas on how to tweak these lessons to integrate a more code-like experience.  They are amazed to see that many of these activities do not involve a computer at all, yet explore concepts of basic coding.  Our hope is that teachers leave these workshops with the understanding that foundations of coding are easily found in all subject areas as well as everyday life. 


Blended/Online Learning

The term blended learning is generally applied to the practice of using both online and in-person learning experiences when teaching students. In a blended-learning course, for example, students might attend a class taught by a teacher in a traditional classroom setting, while also independently completing online components of the course outside of the classroom. In this case, in-class time may be either replaced or supplemented by online learning experiences, and students would learn about the same topics online as they do in class—i.e., the online and in-person learning experiences would parallel and complement one another.

Source: http://edglossary.org/blended-learning/

Why We Need an Online Learning Management System

  • Loss of ADM to competitive outside sources.
  • Demand for better course offerings across all schools.
  • Demand for flexible scheduling to better serve schools and families.
  • Shortage of quality teachers.  Canvas allows all schools access to the best teachers.
  • Partnership with library system for home school, home-bound students, etc.
  • Availability of time for staff development.  More targeted and flexible access for teachers.
  • Fall 2012, four million undergrads took at least one online course.
  • More than twice as many students now take a class online as live on campus.