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Schooling the Workforce

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Megan Ward has already completed two semesters of college at Louisiana's Northwestern State University, which wouldn't be a spectacular accomplishment if she weren't still a senior at Simpson High School in Vernon Parish.

'I did it because I didn't want to waste my time here," she says. "Plus, the school pays for the books and everything else. I basically got my first year of college for free just by putting forth some extra effort."

Simpson, a small, rural, K-12 on La. Hwy. 8 between Leesville and Alexandria, could have been the poster child for Gov. Bobby Jindal's initiative to revamp Louisiana's workforce development efforts. In the recent legislative session, the governor placed a significant value on dual-enrollment and outreach programs that prepare students for the labor market while introducing them to some form of higher education. Jindal pushed more than $4.5 million and considerable human resources for such projects, which would bring universities and technical and community colleges into high school classrooms like never before.

While Simpson fits Jindal's ideal perfectly, the reality is that one has nothing to do with the other. The high school's staff and principal were proactive in setting up the school's curriculum, which includes joint ventures with community and technical colleges, long before Jindal embraced workforce development. Simpson is proof that Louisiana's schools don't necessarily need a government mandate to enhance their offerings or to educate the labor market — they just need some drive, well-placed partnerships and faculty willing to go the extra mile.

That's not to say Jindal's plans aren't welcome, says Principal David Lewis. It's just an uneasy truth that Louisiana's schools are missing opportunities that can be implemented with little or no money. In recent years, many students have graduated with six to 15 hours of college credits; Ward is exceptional with 26 hours.

'We are quite normal in our makeup, and I don't feel as though we have done anything really exceptional that cannot be replicated at other schools," says Lewis, who has led Simpson for more than 11 years. "But it is a great accomplishment, and I have high praise for our faculty and students. We have gone the route of preparing our students for the future, and any other normal school can make the same happen."

Other Simpson students earn significant college credits via Advanced Placement classes. Lewis says Simpson partnered with LSU and the Department of Education, which were actually looking for schools to participate, to start offering the courses last fall. Better still, it was free. The state already has Advanced Placement Incentive Program grants to help pay for training and textbooks. Grants run for only three years, so Lewis has already started making budget changes to pick up the minimal expenses in 2010. "Whatever that annual cost might be, it'll be money well spent," he says.

Simpson students get other credits through the Louisiana Virtual School (LVS), another program sponsored by the state Department of Education in partnership with the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. LVS courses use the Internet, email and other online and offline resources for standards-based high school courses. Lewis says LVS was first used at Simpson to help students receive two years of a foreign language when a full-time, certified instructor couldn't be found. "The students needed those credits for the TOPS scholarship anyway, so it was a good match," he adds.

Another innovation at Simpson involves the MathXL program, a two-semester, Web-based program that costs the school about $12 per student for college-level algebra and trigonometry classes. Phoebe Rouse, LSU's precalculus mathematics coordinator, says the program is expanding and teacher training is free — plus, educators get a stipend during the training.

Closer to home, Simpson collaborated with Northwestern State through its campus at Fort Polk to offer dual-enrollment courses for math and English. It's another example of Simpson's success, which came without a hefty workforce development package passed by the Legislature. Lewis says the extra help from Jindal will be a blessing to many schools when it's finally implemented, but they could be proactive in the meantime.

Just take a look at what is already out there, he adds, and don't feel restricted by what the state and local school board want. "Sometimes it's good to get out of your comfort zone," Lewis says. "That's when great things happen."

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