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Industry cheers technical diplomas proposal

For years Michael Mandina has watched the skills gap widen. He has seen dwindling numbers of high school graduates who are prepared for the region’s high-tech manufacturing jobs. And for years he and other members of the business community have called on the Board of Regents to do something about it.
 
This year the state has responded. The Education Department is proposing to create two new high school diploma options for students entering ninth grade in 2013. One is a career and technical education diploma; the other focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
 
Mandina, the president of Optimax Systems Inc. and chairman of the Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturers’ Enterprise, says the change could lead more students into careers in technical fields, something that is sorely needed in the United States. The U.S. graduation rate in the STEM fields ranks in the high 20s or low 30s among industrialized countries, Mandina notes.
 
"Not everyone gets hyped up on geography or history, and some kids like things like science or career shop and welding more," Mandina says. "If they can get a fully accredited high school diploma in those areas, it might help more of them look at technical programs at community colleges when they graduate."
 
Technical programs have suffered from low attendance, says Mandina, who works with both Monroe Community College and Finger Lakes Community College. Students typically have good attendance in the first semesters, but many then fall away, unprepared for the rigors of the mathematics and science courses required.
 
Leaders at the Monroe No. 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services have come out in support of the plan and, like Mandina, believe new graduation options would improve the school-to-work pipeline. Monroe No. 1 BOCES already offers a host of programs that would be appropriate for the new diplomas, including culinary arts, professional health careers and construction trades, says Daniel White, its superintendent.
 
"We offer a wide breadth of technical programs already, so it may not significantly change what we do, but it could increase the number of those programs across the state and hopefully increase the number of graduates with those skills," White says.
 
As the diploma pathway proposal now stands, students pursuing the career and technical education diploma would be required to pass Regents exams in English, math, science and U.S. history along with a CTE assessment of college and career readiness in place of the global history exam. The STEM diploma would substitute a second math or science assessment for global history.
 
White notes that he does not expect a decision soon; many details remain to be determined at the state level. But simply creating the proposal is a step in the right direction, he says.
 
"Unfortunately, education can suffer if it doesn’t evolve quickly, but they have made the recognition that our economy is changing," White says. "Just look at the changes we’ve seen in the past 10 years. There’s a tremendous amount of advanced manufacturing now, but those firms are having trouble filling jobs that require high skills."
 
That is exactly the situation at Optimax, Mandina says. For every 100 resumes it receives, the company might hire three people; for every six employees hired, only three will remain by the end of the first year.
 
If New York doesn’t intervene, the situation will only get worse, Mandina adds. Within 10 years the advanced manufacturing industry is expected to lose many of its most highly skilled workers to retirement, and a reliable source of work-ready students is absolutely necessary, he says.
 
Introducing a diploma centered on career trades and STEM education would also dispel the idea that these programs are less rigorous or an easy way out for students who otherwise struggle academically, White said.
 
"It would have a high level of rigor; it just might not look like the traditional classroom experience," he says. "It would look more like a workplace."
 
The new diplomas would not only meet workplace needs but could help raise graduation rates statewide, says Michelle Kavanaugh, superintendent of the Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School District.
 
"STEM and CTE pathways will motivate more students to participate in high-level learning experiences that will require them to solve complex problems while working collaboratively with others," she says. "Nothing mirrors the college and career experience more than these challenging course experiences that are aligned with individual student interests."
 
As the proposal is being discussed at the state level, White says he hopes the local business community can become more closely involved and provide feedback.
 
"I think this would be of interest to the members of the business community, as they’ve been pushing for these proposals for the better part of a decade," he says.
 
Even if a final proposal is not approved anytime soon, White says, pressure from the business community and other sources will push the state toward some kind of conclusion. He notes the support of companies like Xerox Corp. in promoting STEM education, as well as the "Pathways to Prosperity" report issued by Harvard University, which outlines the challenges facing schools as they prepare students for the 21st-century workforce.
 
As these stakeholders gain a stronger voice and the momentum builds toward offering a new solution for students interested in STEM and CTE, a solution is imminent, White says.
 
"I think the proposal will evolve and change, but the Board of Regents will have to make these changes to the graduation requirements," he says.                         

6/22/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].

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