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Putting It All Together

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Edward Ortiz--a slight, diffident youth in a pinstriped shirt and red tie--shifts from foot to foot behind the teller's window of a branch of Firstar Bank just outside Milwaukee.

Four afternoons a week, the 16-year-old apprentice works at the bank to learn firsthand about customer-service, marketing, and financial operations. On the fifth day, he takes a course in financial services back at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, where he is a junior.

"Now that I know how the banking industry really works, I have a better understanding for it,'' he explains. "I know it's not just going to get a check cashed or to deposit money. It's much more complicated than that.''

When he graduates next year, Edward would like to enroll in one of the schools in the University of Wisconsin system and continue working at the bank, where he could eventually be hired full time.

For Edward, the trip to the bank entails a half-hour bus ride from his school downtown. But to Wisconsin state officials, who helped create the youth-apprenticeship program, it's been nearly a five-year journey whose end is not yet in sight.

By the time the high school class of 2000 graduates, Wisconsin officials hope that one out of five students will have earned a skills certificate in a career field, one out of three will have completed a career major linked to an associate's degree at a technical college, 90 percent will have achieved mastery of national academic standards, and all students will have a career plan and at least some exposure to the workplace.

With the passage of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act by Congress last month, one state after another is gearing up to provide young people with the building blocks that could help take them from learning to earning. But Wisconsin is further along than most, with a comprehensive plan whose roots date back at least to the late 1980's.

Like most Midwestern states, Wisconsin was racked by the recession of the past decade. Thousands of high-paying, low-skill jobs vanished, never to return. In 1950, 66 percent of the jobs in the state were considered "low skill.'' Today, the figure is 23 percent and still declining.

In April 1991, a report by the Governor's Commission for a Quality Workforce warned that many young people entering the labor market faced little chance of finding a job that paid enough to support a family and offered avenues for career advancement.

The 15-member commission, headed by prominent business leaders, recommended revamping the curriculum of the technical colleges and the K-12 system to increase workers' skills and ease the transition from education to employment. Two earlier state reports--from the Commission on Schools for the 21st Century, in 1990, and the Task Force on Implementing Occupational Options, in 1991--also called for reforming the K-12 system to strengthen workforce preparation.

"It was clear,'' recalls James R. Klauser, the secretary of the state's department of administration, "that our future economic growth and our new jobs--the new, good jobs--would depend on technical education, not university education, and that high school education wasn't adequate.''

The Framework Emerges

In July 1991, Wisconsin lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 91, the Wisconsin School-to-Work Initiative. The law has five key components:

  • Beginning in the 1997-98 school year, a 10th-grade performance assessment will measure competencies in reading, writing, computation, and scientific literacy. Students who pass will receive a "certificate of initial mastery'' that attests to their skills.

Eventually, teenagers will have to attain a certificate before selecting from a variety of career and academic pathways during their last two years of high school.

  • Every high school is required to implement a technical-preparation program in cooperation with one of the state's 16 technical colleges. Youths who complete a career major during high school can gain advanced standing in an associate's-degree program in their career field.
  • A statewide youth-apprenticeship program offers students structured, work-based learning. Students who complete the program receive a skills certificate, a high school diploma, and advanced standing in an associate's-degree program. Both the skills standards and the youth-apprenticeship curricula are uniform statewide.
  • A postsecondary-enrollment-options program permits juniors and seniors to attend institutions of higher education while still in high school and receive high school or college credit.
  • A revised "education-for-employment standard'' requires all school districts to participate in school-business partnerships and provide students with access to applied learning, employability skills, work experience, and career exploration and planning.

In the fall of 1991, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson signed an executive order creating a governor's cabinet for a quality workforce. The nine-member committee of cabinet officials and business and labor representatives oversees the state's workforce agenda.

A new executive order now being drafted would replace the cabinet with a governor's commission on the school-to-work transition. The commission, which would include representatives from both the public and private sectors, would give advice on how to integrate school-to-work policies with existing state and federal programs. It would also consider long-term funding.

A separate school-to-work cabinet--comprising the state superintendent of public instruction; the secretary of industry, labor, and human relations; the state director of the Wisconsin technical-college system; the president of the University of Wisconsin system; and the secretary of the department of administration--will be responsible for coordinating and implementing school-to-work programs across state agencies.

"We're not interested in having a czar of school-to-work, with one lead agency,'' explains Orlando Canto, a policy and budget analyst in the department of administration. "We don't need more bureaucracy in Madison. We need people out in the field doing this.''

Last year, the U.S. General Accounting Office identified Wisconsin as one of four states--along with Florida, Oregon, and Tennessee--that have adopted legislation addressing all aspects of a comprehensive school-to-work system.

Since 1989, Canto estimates, Wisconsin has spent more than $15 million on various aspects of its initiative. State spending has been supplemented by nearly $10.4 million in federal funds, primarily from the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act. In addition, the state has applied for a school-to-work implementation grant from the federal government that would bring in another $6.3 million in new funds over the next year, to be matched by some $6.8 million in state revenues.

Now, the state's challenge is to implement all of the pieces of its legislative strategy, while maintaining local flexibility.

"I see [school-to-work] as the fulcrum, and everything else revolves around it,'' Governor Thompson says. "Here is school-to-work, giving students the opportunity at first blush to get some training and some skills. They can then take that into the marketplace and get expanded workplace skills, or they can go on to vocational schools and colleges and get more in-depth or sophisticated training, and then they can go out and get a job.''

"The more I studied it,'' he adds, "the more encouraged I got that this has to be the way for Wisconsin. So I started to lead the fight, and I'll be leading it wherever I can.''

Standards and Diversity

The flagship of Wisconsin's system is its youth-apprenticeship program. It was the first state to enact a law establishing youth apprenticeships.

The first class of youth apprentices will graduate from high school this spring. By next fall, Wisconsin will enroll some 400 youth apprentices in about 25 local programs that involve 200 employers.

At the heart of the system are statewide skills standards that spell out what an entry-level worker should know and be able to do in broad industry clusters. Over the past two years, consortia representing business, labor, and education have produced skills standards for nine industries, including printing, financial services, biotechnology, health, and engineering.

Statewide curricula, based on those standards, have been developed by the Wisconsin technical-college system, under contract with the state department of industry, labor, and human relations. Over the next five years, the state hopes to develop skills standards and curricula for 20 more industries.

Participating businesses receive "mentor-training grants,'' worth up to $1,000 per student, to help finance the costs of the program. Instruction at the worksite is provided by employees who have completed special mentor training offered through the state's technical colleges. Students are paid at least the minimum wage.

To participate in the program, local coalitions must agree to use the statewide curricula and to graduate students who can meet the skills standards. But within the state framework, variety abounds.

In the Fox Valley area of northeastern Wisconsin, students in the printing apprenticeship take all of their academic and vocational courses at the technical college, for which they receive both high school and college credit. But in the Milwaukee public schools, students receive all of their work-related instruction in their home high schools. In southwestern Wisconsin, students receive most technical instruction through a distance-learning network.

Similarly, the lead agencies for the effort range from local chambers of commerce to technical colleges and private-industry councils.

"As soon as I think I've figured out the model, somebody comes up with another delivery mechanism,'' says Margaret Burke, the youth-apprenticeship consultant for the department of public instruction.

Career Counseling

Nonetheless, state officials acknowledge that youth apprenticeships will never serve more than a fraction of the state's teenagers.

"It can't be for very many kids,'' argues Carol Skornicka, the secretary of industry, labor, and human relations, which administers the program. "It's too intensive. It requires a tremendous amount of work to develop. But I think it's captured people's imagination.''

More than 17,000 high school students are already involved in other work-experience programs in the state, ranging from cooperative education to job-shadowing. Wisconsin officials hope to build on these pre-existing efforts by encouraging all school-to-work programs to adopt skills standards similar to those for youth apprenticeships.

Students in many programs would begin their career exploration in high school but complete their school-based and work-based learning at the postsecondary level.

By 1999, the state hopes to have 10 percent of all high school juniors and seniors enrolled in school-to-work programs that meet the standards. Skills credentials only would be awarded to students who demonstrate mastery.

On the school side, Wisconsin has been trying to encourage the growth of career majors and applied learning, primarily through its technical-preparation programs. By this August, all high schools--in conjunction with their local technical colleges--are supposed to have outlined a coherent sequence of secondary and postsecondary courses for students in broad career clusters. The plans will be used to develop career majors that would be linked to additional postsecondary training.

The University of Wisconsin system also plans to pilot a competency-based admissions process that would enable students who have not completed college-preparatory courses to demonstrate that they have mastered the same competencies through applied learning in schools or at the worksite.

"I didn't realize how dominant our university system was over everything,'' says Secretary Klauser of the department of administration. "Even for kids who are never going to go to university, the entrance exams and the methods by which the universities are satisfied have had a tremendous effect.''

Wisconsin is also placing a heavy emphasis on career guidance and counseling as part of its school-to-work initiative. In 1992, a statewide task force on guidance and counseling was formed to design a system that would support all young people, not just the college-bound. The task force proposed that beginning in grade 6, students participate in career days, field trips, and other activities that would expose them to possible occupations. Structured job-shadowing in grades 7 to 10 would give all students direct, in-depth experiences at the worksite.

This month, the department of industry, labor, and human relations awarded grants to create four community-based career-counseling centers that will open in the fall. The centers, to be based outside the high schools, will provide students and their families with information about the labor market, avenues for further education and training, and career services. Within the next three years, the state hopes to create at least 10 such regional centers to complement its "one stop'' job centers for adults.

Secretary Skornicka estimates that the state now spends about $85 million a year on school guidance and counseling but notes that "very little of it is career counseling.'' Focus groups also revealed that parents were "widely critical'' of such services.

New Partnerships

To encourage communities to develop comprehensive school-to-work programs, state officials last month awarded planning grants of up to $5,000 each to 44 local partnerships that include representatives of secondary schools, postsecondary institutions, business, and labor. The grants are designed to help the partnerships plan new school-to-work programs or improve existing ones by 1994-95.

The state has used more than half of the $290,000 in federal funds it has received so far under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act--plus $25,000 in state money--to finance the grant program.

Each applicant had to describe the local partnership that would plan and operate its school-to-work program, as well as the career counseling, school-based study, and work-based learning that students would receive.

The four state agencies helping coordinate Wisconsin's school-to-work initiative will jointly oversee the grants program. "We wanted to help the people who were going to try to implement soonest,'' says Wade Dyke, the director of the office for workforce excellence within the department of industry, labor, and human relations.

In Milwaukee, the school board has voted to make a comprehensive school-to-work proposal the wedge for its entire school-reform initiative. Beginning in middle school, students will be asked to select an "integrated studies'' program that includes a mix of academic, work-related, and fine-arts courses.

The themes may range from electronics to environmental studies. Each focus group will include the appropriate vocational and academic teachers as well as counselors. Although the programs will be designed to enable all students to attend college, graduates would also be ready to enter the workforce or to work part time while completing further schooling. And the elementary school curriculum will be expanded to expose students to workplaces and to the kinds of skills that adults use on the job.

"This is a reform that will change the whole way we do schooling,'' predicts Superintendent Howard L. Fuller of the Milwaukee school district, "and it's going to require rethinking all the existing paradigms.''

The Milwaukee school board last month approved nearly $2 million in new funding to help implement the proposal, much of which will be devoted to staff development on such topics as interdisciplinary instruction, team teaching, and cooperative learning. Without intensive professional training, Fuller warns, "this will not work, any more than American industry can retool itself and not retrain its workers.''

Starting in the fall, three elementary schools, four middle schools, and three high schools in the district will implement pieces of the proposal. All of the city's schools are expected to come on board within the next three years.

"We were worried that if we got off into a pilot mode again that it was never going to happen,'' Fuller remarks. "So we've set an aggressive schedule, and we'll evaluate it as we go forward.'' The superintendent has also appointed a full-time coordinator within his office to oversee the initiative.

In addition, the state has pledged to set aside $1 million of the implementation funds it has requested from the federal government for 1994-95 for the Milwaukee district. Nearly 20 percent of all Wisconsin students, and a substantial majority of those who are poor or minority, reside in the city.

Joint Effort

To pull off Wisconsin's ambitious school-to-work agenda, each state agency involved has also had to make adjustments. Every agency has primary responsibility for pieces of the school-to-work system.

In addition, each agency has identified a core group of employees responsible for coordinating school-to-work efforts. In the labor department, the office of workforce excellence has primary responsibility for the development of industry skills standards, youth apprenticeships, and career-counseling centers.

John T. Benson, the superintendent of public instruction, has reorganized the entire education department, abolishing the bureau for vocational education and integrating it with academic studies. A new school-to-work office will report directly to him.

"We're trying to model what we want to see practiced out in the school districts in terms of integration,'' Benson explains. Every technical college has also appointed a school-to-work coordinator.

The leading players within each of the agencies meet at least once a week to help align their efforts. The same interagency group ultimately will be responsible for implementing the system.

In addition, the state plans to provide technical assistance through the creation of regional school-to-work consortia whose boundaries will follow those of the technical colleges.

But for now, Wisconsin's biggest challenge may be a marketing one.

Ultimately, it is up to each of the state's 427 school districts, 16 technical colleges, and hundreds of businesses and labor unions to help design and implement a vibrant school-to-work system.

"The biggest challenge,'' says Secretary Skornicka of the labor department, "is how to institute this across the board when it's so voluntary.''

"I think there's a major piece of work to be done in helping employers understand the value of this as just a cost of doing business,'' she adds. "We need to have businesses actually move over and make room in the workplace for kids and for teachers.''

Carl A. Weigell, the president of the Milwaukee-based Motor Castings Company and a vocal proponent of school-to-work programs, says: "Employers need to know that there's something different about the partnerships that we're suggesting in this case. In many cases, those connections have been cosmetic. The new partnerships are curriculum-related.''

The Cautious View

But at least in the education community, Superintendent Benson cautions, "I think that any number of people have not yet seen the value of school-to-work and how it will contribute to the overall restructuring of the schools.'' Without more backing, he adds, getting high schools to develop course sequences organized around career clusters by this August will be "not much short of a miracle.''

The state's labor unions have also taken a cautious view of youth apprenticeships, particularly as they relate to existing registered-apprenticeship programs. Phil Neuenfeldt, the executive director of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, a labor-management group, says: "School-to-work is a part of a bigger puzzle. Even though it's the sexiest thing in town, it's really not the answer to everything.''

"Are there going to be enough jobs to support school-to-work efforts so there's an actual job at the end of things?'' he asks. "I think it's good to work at the supply side, which is what this is, but we'd better start to have some discussions on the demand side soon.''

Parents must also be persuaded that such programs will benefit their children. "There are a lot of parents,'' Superintendent Fuller of Milwaukee says, "who still have not gotten over this notion that 'I want my child to go to college.' That's why we stress the rigor [of school-to-work programs] so much. So we don't get down the road and have parents be the major block to this.''

In the end, the real value of the state's efforts will be measured by the experiences of students like Schenita Henderson.

Three afternoons a week, the 17-year-old at the Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School catches two buses and rides for an hour to her job as a printing apprentice at Success Business Industries, a local printing company. When she graduates, she plans to enroll in a technical college and major in print management and advertising.

Although Schenita has access to a sophisticated desktop-publishing system at her high school, she says she's learned much more at the worksite. "You learn a faster way of doing things and a more precise way,'' she observes. "A lot of the things that we do in school are things they did years ago.''

"Other students who aren't in the program,'' she says, "they have to wait to find out what it might be like to work in a company. But I have the experience now, and I know what positions are available.''

The "Learning To Earn'' series is being underwritten by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The collected articles in the series will be published in a forthcoming special report.

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