Story by Mike Christen – The Daily Herald
With the school year ending, the Maury County School District is celebrating nearly 900 high school graduates.
The Class of 2019 earned $17.8 million in scholarship offers to students, many of whom will be heading off to Martin Methodist College, Austin Peay State University, the University of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State University and Columbia State Community College in the fall.
This year, the school district has seen an increase of $3 million over last year’s students, who earned a total of $15.2 million in scholarships.
“This is one of the strongest classes that we have had in a while,” said Ron Woodard, assistant superintendent of academics for the school district.
In a second major step forward for the public school district and its students, MCPS is ending the year by awarding at least 343 industry certifications to its students. Last year, that number was less than 70 — a 400 percent increase, Woodard said.
Local students have earned certificates in nursing, restaurant services, construction information technology and more.
“This is a goal that we are seeing come to fruition,” Woodard said. “We are being more aggressive and taking more steps to make sure that our students meet the state’s graduation criteria.”
With more students leaving the school district with industry certifications on their resumes, the school district will earn better ratings from the Tennessee Department of Education, Woodard said.
“We are taking steps to have certification pathways, and we are even moving into elementary school,” said Dr. Lori Brown, who supervises all career and technical education in the school district.
With the establishment of the community-developed Keys to College and Career Readiness in 2016, the school district sets the precedent that all students should participate in advanced placement course work, dual enrollment, industry certification, work-based learning or military preparation by the time they leave high school.
The final goal in a set of seven expectations for local students, the standard was revealed several months before MCPS partnered with Columbia State Community College to launch a dual enrollment program offering students the opportunity to graduate high school with an associate’s degree in mechatronics. The Class of 2020 will include the first dual-degree cohort of graduates through the program.
In the coming years, MCPS will focus on bringing career and technical education to students in middle and elementary school.
“When we start the year, students will see the steps they need to take to get where they want to be,” Brown said.
Because the programs are relatively new, Brown said the school district expects to see more students graduating with more certificates in the coming years.
“You are going to see more middle-school students taking certification courses for high school credit,” Woodard said. “We are doing this before any of our surrounding counties. By taking these certifications down to the middle school level, it’s almost like giving the students a chance to get a double major. They can blend multiple disciplines, all for high school credit. We are leading the region in this. I can guarantee there are no other districts doing this in our area.”
Brown and Woodard said the effort continues the school district’s ultimate goal of preparing students for life, college and career.
In order to pinpoint the needs of Maury County’s businesses, all of the school district’s career and technical education program are aligned with local employers.
Tennessee’s major industries include manufacturing, agriculture and tourism. In Maury County, major industries include manufacturing, health services and professional services.
Research conducted by The Manufacturing Institute indicates that manufacturers in the United States will likely need to add 4.6 million manufacturing jobs, 2.4 million of which are expected to go unfilled. This year, the two most popular certificate programs for MCPS were for manufacturing and health sciences.
Last year, it was reported that more than 500,000 manufacturing jobs remain vacant in the United States due to an aging workforce in the field.
“As companies continue to automate their services there is less of a demand for low level jobs,” Woodard said. “Obviously, on the side of the company, it saves money, but it is a scary thing and it is a trend that we are concerned about. We are looking to make sure our kids can go into fields where there is high demand and high need.”
Teachers are working closely with students and school counselors to help students move forward and make the most of the public school district’s offerings, Brown said.
“It helps are students be well-rounded and ready,” Brown said. “I think we are building a much stronger workforce for Maury County, and with this coming year of graduates, it is only getting stronger. We are bring very intentional and are moving forward with a set plan for both the school district and our students.”
The ongoing effort has caught the attention of state leaders. Earlier this year, the Tennessee Department of Education has requested to review the local program in an effort to encourage school districts across the state to do the same.
“We are a model for the state and other districts,” Woodard said. “Maury County students are ready for work. We need to make sure these are students that the community can be proud of, and good candidates for a position here. Of course, many of our students go to college, but those who enter the workforce directly out of high school, they are ready for work. They have the soft skills and the professional training. They are coming in as qualified candidates.”
When it comes to the school district’s pursuit, Woodard said the effort is carried out under a single goal.
“We have a civic duty to the taxpaying people of Maury County to provide a quality education and ensure that local students are ready to go to college and highly employable,” Woodard said. “It’s that simple.”