Within the next two years, the Lawrence school district and local business leaders hope to open a new career and technical education center that may be unique in the nation.
The plans now call for two facilities to be located on the same campus: one operated by the school district to serve high school students; the other operated by an arm of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce to offer adult job-training programs tailored to the needs of existing businesses.
But while the public-private structure of the Lawrence plan may be unique, officials say it's really just a variation on a theme that many other communities are dealing with: bringing public school and post-secondary programs together under one roof, and tailoring a curriculum around the needs and job opportunities available in the local business community.
Grand Island's Career Pathways Institute
“That's what makes this a community project, and that makes it something the community is behind,” said Jack Sheard, spokesman for the Grand Island, Neb., school district, which this year opened a new $8 million Career Pathways Institute.
Located in central Nebraska, about 90 miles west of Lincoln, Grand Island is a largely blue-collar town of about 50,000 people. The school district is about the same size as Lawrence, but the town's economic base is focused much more heavily on manufacturing and agriculture-related industries, including farm machinery manufacturing and meat-packing.
Sheard said the new center offers training on state-of-the-art equipment used by local industries. Students earn simultaneous high school and community college credit. And the curriculum is guided by a steering committee that includes representatives from local businesses and industries.
For Grand Island, Sheard said, it was a matter of economic necessity.
“About six to eight years ago, the businesses in town said if we don't have a better employee base coming out of high school, they aren't going to be able to stay in Grand Island,” he said. “That led us to say okay, that's the public school's job, to create good workers.
Blue Valley CAPS
Closer to Lawrence, the Blue Valley school district in Johnson County has gained national attention for its Center for Advanced Professional Study, or CAPS, which is now in its fifth year of operation.
Executive director Donna Deeds said that program is geared more to students who plan for professional careers that typically require a four-year college degree or more. CAPS students are placed directly in the professional employment environment, working essentially as interns on real-world projects designed by the businesses themselves.
“The real driver is that it's all industry-led,” Deeds said. “All the project work is driven by (the businesses). It's as if they've already been through college, and we're now immersing them in the work environment.”
But while the businesses largely are in charge of designing the projects, and engage in most of the face-to-face contact with students, Deeds said there is always a licensed teacher supervising the students and making sure the work and study fit into an approved academic course.
Deeds also said one of the keys to the CAPS program's success — and a word of advice she offers to Lawrence — is the way it gets students out of the “classroom” setting and into a real-world work environment.
“We took high school instructors out of the high school and created satellites that were in businesses,” she said. “CAPS has its own facility now. But it would have been doomed to failure if all we had done was take students out of a high school and put them into a new building where they would replicate high school.”
In Grand Island, Sheard said the key to success is forming a bond between the program and local businesses.
“The big thing I know for sure that makes this viable, that makes this so it can actually be done, is that partnership with local industries,” Sheard said.