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FUTURE READY

A four-part editorial series featuring Aiken County Public School District Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford
Accelerating Learning to Spark Innovation and Competitiveness

By: Sean Alford, Ph.D.

In a series of columns last year, I introduced readers to three very important words – all means all. Through the series, I reaffirmed our dedication to providing a high-quality educational experience for all students in the Aiken County Public School District. Our commitment to these powerful words and the nearly 25,000 students they represent has not changed.

A new year now provides a fresh opportunity to engage anew with our community stakeholders. My “Future-Ready” series will address the impending workforce deficiencies in our community, and how our school district is responding to it. I will discuss our district’s embrace of new challenges and detail how we are raising expectations by providing accelerated learning opportunities to spark innovation and competitiveness.

Future topics will include the importance of providing solution-driven (not product-driven) graduates as answers to community needs; leveraging relationships with industry resources in Aiken County; and the many benefits of work-based learning opportunities to our students.

I will begin with a bold statement – within the next five years, we anticipate that our community will lose half its current workforce to retirement while gaining more than 37,000 new job opportunities. That is no typographical error.

This issue is not one our school district can confront alone. Rather, this challenge is one we must face together as a community. The economic repercussions of our failure in this regard will reach into every home and every business in our county.

The great news is that we are a community rich in resources and one filled with those who always are willing to step forward when challenges arise. We have a responsibility to you, as a community stakeholder, to provide leadership within the area of workforce development, and meaningful steps already are being taken and new partnerships being fashioned to prevent this potential calamity.

We are reaching out within the context of a new community initiative called Aiken Works, which will change the workforce development dynamic in our community by energizing an interconnected framework of passionate area leaders and professionals. Our goal as a school district will be to supply qualified workers in four key areas – energy, health, industrial manufacturing and technology. You may expect additional information on this community initiative in the weeks ahead.

Also, many may already be familiar with one aspect of our accelerated learning initiative, through an announcement in 2016 of the establishment of thematic programs at each of our high schools. Such a wide-ranging effort to spur growth and achievement in our high schools by committing to innovation and devoting ourselves to competitiveness is necessary, but even these bold initiatives are not enough – not with the seriousness of the challenges we face in workforce development and community staffing needs.

We needed to undertake a fundamental re-evaluation of the middle-school experience. This long process yielded a number of developments and enhancements, including new academic progressions. These opportunities will have the power to supercharge a student’s path to success by offering courses such as English I and geometry in the eighth grade, algebra I in the seventh grade and advanced-level core courses in all middle-school levels.

We also wanted to spur greater creativity and challenge our middle-school students to learn to think and compete like true innovators. With that in mind, we have renewed a commitment to provide more opportunities for students to share and test their skills in county, regional and statewide Science Fair and MathCounts competitions. We received 100-percent participation in both events from our middle schools this year.
These events, and others, such as the annual Future City competition, will become great showcases for the achievements of our students as we encourage our future technicians and innovators to dream big.

This commitment to enhanced rigor and accelerated learning also extends into the elementary grade levels, where we have changed our delivery model for reaching Gifted and Talented (GT) students and expanded processes for identifying advanced students. To provide more opportunity at these formative grade levels, it was necessary to increase the number of elementary-level teachers certified to serve as GT instructors. Through advanced educator training, the number of GT-endorsed teachers in grades three through five has increased from eight teachers to 83.

By combining state- identifying measures with our own local methods to identify high-potential students and increasing the number of GT-endorsed teachers, we’ve more than doubled the amount of students served in the Gifted and Talented program at these grade levels (from 650 to more than 1,500 students).

Through aggressive accelerating learning initiatives, we will answer the community’s call to provide a new generation of highly qualified and skilled workers. We look forward to widespread and limitless community support to achieve this, and are confident that, together, we will drive Aiken County to further prosperity through a sustainable pipeline of future-ready graduates well- prepared for the demands of our area’s workforce needs.

Providing Solution-Driven (Not Product-Driven) Graduates Who Answer the Economic and Social Needs of Our Community

By Dr. Sean Alford, Superintendent

In my most recent editorial dedicated to outlining the role of public education in community workforce development, I included a statement some may find to be shocking – within the next five years, we anticipate that our community will lose half its current workforce to retirement, while gaining over 37,000 new job opportunities.

Those jobs will require a future-ready workforce, one we will need to provide.

We already recognize this as the heightened community and statewide challenge that it is, and have identified it as a focal point for allocation of time, resources and partnership opportunities. We have joined with vital community partners in a workforce development collaborative called AIKEN WORKS that will serve as an important source of information and a conduit for opportunities to address workforce development challenges.

Moving ahead in my “Future-Ready” editorial series, I will address the topic of providing solution-driven graduates to meet the economic and social needs of our community. As a manner of introduction, I would like to pose the following question – as a school district and provider of the future local, state and global workforce, with whom will we meet the workforce challenges now facing the Aiken County community?

The most obvious answer is, of course, with our students. However, that merely scratches the surface of what must become a more deliberate conversation in our schools, our workplaces and our homes. In order to reach our goals, both as a community and as a school district, our fundamental understanding of the type of graduates we should be developing in our classrooms and providing to our community as new workforce professionals must change.

In the past, as educators and parents we have too often set as a sole benchmark of success for our students the attainment of a high school diploma. While this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and an important goal for students, the setting of a single product in place as an “end all” achievement sells our community far short of its economic and social potential.

This product-driven approach to workforce development does nothing to address emerging community workforce needs in a changing global economy, and instead places more of the responsibility of preparing students for the workforce at the doorstep of business and industry professionals, slowing growth and limiting efficiency and profitability for job creators. This approach also closes the door on the social potential of the community by limiting the number of graduates who are able to contribute immediately through an important role as a positive and productive citizen. When more of our young people work in a setting they have been uniquely prepared for and experience financial and social success as viable members of our Aiken County community, we can expect a drop in crime rates and an influx of new business and industry investment. In this manner, we are changing the status quo by proactively engaging community business partners and industry stakeholders where they are, allowing us to provide employers with the workers they will need to move our community forward. That is exactly what the AIKEN WORKS initiative is all about – generating those important community conversations in a deliberate and meaningful way that will allow us to find the most effective answers to our community workforce challenges.

If we recognize that the answer to our community’s workforce needs no longer resides with the product-driven graduate of years gone by, what is the alternative? The answer to that question rests in the development of solution-driven and not product-driven graduates. Product-driven success equals a high school diploma, where the story ends. Solution-driven success, on the other hand, equals graduates who represent the economic and social needs of the community. The product-driven graduate enters the workforce at a disadvantage. He or she may lack the skills necessary to make an immediate contribution in an industry in which high-paying jobs are most readily available. Meanwhile, the solution-driven graduate does not enter an increasingly diversified workforce equipped only with a one-size-fits-all diploma, but rather with a unique set of skills and base of knowledge with which they are ready to make a difference in an increasingly global society. Developing a solution-driven workforce in our Aiken County Public Schools means more high-quality job options for our graduates and better access to highly qualified employees for established businesses and those job creators who may be considering Aiken County for possible expansion.

Utilizing this new approach to addressing our community workforce development needs, we have identified four key areas in which we must provide greater numbers of solution-driven graduates who are future-ready immediately upon graduation, including jobs related to the Energy, Health, Industrial Manufacturing, and Cyber Technology sectors of our local economy. In the immediate future, these are the critical sectors of the economy where we must match our high-quality Aiken County graduates with the expanding job opportunities that will be available to them in increasingly larger numbers with each passing year. In order to maximize our effectiveness, we must engage not only our students, but also parents, community members and District educators with updated and reliable information regarding jobs in these fields. This is also another important aspect of our collaborative AIKEN WORKS initiative.

Moving to a model whereby we provide future-ready and solution-driven graduates who meet both the economic and social needs of our community is a win on so many levels for all of us. We look forward to expanding the future-ready discussion in your area of the community very soon.