By Patrick O’Donnell
The relationship between businesses and schools in Ohio has often been contentious as they regularly spar over school tax bills, abatements and exemptions that affect the pocketbooks of both sides.
There has also been a tension, though it has lessened in recent years, over how well schools prepare their graduates for the workforce. Though vocational programs, now known as Career Technical Education, have long had good relationships with businesses, there has often been a wall between business and traditional schools.
Now, Northeast Ohio’s two largest school districts — Cleveland and Akron — are joining a national movement to knock down that wall.
Cooperation and collaboration are now in, as businesses and school districts alike are working as partners to better connect students to good-paying jobs with a future.
Akron Public Schools has turned its traditional high schools into “college and career academies,” in a shift to what many consider the most ambitious career training effort in Ohio. The academies require that students – even those on a college preparatory path – take classes through the lens of a career field like biotechnology, aerospace or early childhood education.
Those aren’t full vocational programs that teach hard technical skills for a job. The academies are designed to teach broad skills that let students shift gears and go to college for something completely different if they chose.
But each “academy” has a business or college partner — like Goodyear, Bridgestone, First Energy or Kent State University’s performing arts department — that provide chances for students to visit workplaces or have real work experiences. Classes use articles and books about the field to teach English or use real problems that businesses face to teach math skills.
Rachel Tecca, director of Akron’s academies, said exposing students to different careers, without locking them into a path too early, lets them work through what they want to do.
“I had no idea what engineering is,” a student might reason, she said. “But I do now because I shadowed someone at First Energy and now I understand a little bit more, and that lets me know, ‘Yeah, maybe I do want to major in engineering in college, or, ‘There’s no way. That sounds horrible. I don’t want to do that and I want to go in a whole another direction.”
Key Bank, which leads the Academy of Business and Health Services at East Community Learning Center in Akron, jumped at having a chance to work with students and this spring even renewed its partnership with the high school for another three years.
“It’s important that businesses stand up and step out to help the students and help members of our community,” said Julie Ann Sweet, who works with Key’s small business loan team. “I think it’s a very important piece of success and how you succeed in life, giving back and sharing the opportunities that you’ve had.”
She added: “You see that in Akron. I think there’s a lot of business that have stepped up to partner with Akron Public Schools. It’s been phenomenal.”
In Cleveland, the district has tried the last several years to create schools that expose students to different jobs they can pursue. A high school based at MetroHealth Medical Center lets students tour different hospital operations — ranging from operating rooms to laundry services to food preparation — to learn about the variety of jobs available.
Cleveland’s Davis Maritime and Aerospace High School was formed in partnership with Phastar, a coalition of flight and shipping businesses that now takes students to visit companies and helps students earn licenses for entry level jobs in the field.
And the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) will soon launch a new partnership with United Airlines that will let students tour United’s hangar at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, pay for flight training for more than 10 students a year and provide more than 20 internships each year in engineering, aircraft maintenance and other parts of the aviaion industry.
Cleveland Metropolitian School District CEO Eric Gordon announced the district’s student training partnership with United Airlines in late 2020. [CMSD]
Cleveland has also used the “college and career academies” model, first pioneered in Nashville, Tenn., though on a far smaller scale than either Nashville or Akron. But those are all specialized programs, with intense experiences for a small number of students.
CMSD is working now with the Cleveland Foundation, the Greater Cleveland Partnership — the city’s chamber of commerce — and nearly 100 local companies to develop a program to give more students experiences in the workplace.
That was limited this past school year by the COVID-19 pandemic to businesses just sharing videos with students or making Zoom presentations. More formal instruction — including a class about how to find a job and succeed in it — are expected this coming school year, along with more in-person visits to businesses. More details will be available in just a few weeks.
Shana Marbury, a senior vice president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, said she hopes to accelerate efforts this fall.
“The goal is to move beyond awareness,” Marbury said. “We want to get these kids on the campuses of these companies and exposed to the actual sites, what’s going on with the company, actual experiences, potentially internships, mentorships, coaching, et cetera. We hope as things open up, as we emerge from COVID, hopefully we’ll be able to pivot back to some of those particular things in the model.”
Anthony Battaglia, who heads college and career readiness work for the Cleveland schools, said that if the district can keep building relationships with businesses, those businesses can look to students as their future workers and see that giving students internships or job shadowing opportunities will only benefit them. And he said all students need that exposure, regardless of whether they are going to college or into the workforce after graduation.
“Every student needs this. These are good opportunities for every student,” Battaglia said. “Yes, if you’re going right into the workforce, you might need to dig deeper into the workplace learning earlier or more frequently, but that doesn’t mean every student should not have some kind of hands-on learning in the career fields they’re exploring.”
The Oatey Company, a Cleveland-based manufacturer of plumbing products, is among those happy to work with the school district, often through other manufacturing organizations trying to draw students into the field.
“It’s our future,” said Maureen Pansky, a human resources manager at Oatey. “It’s a talent competition. We want to get the best people in. And we’re local. It’s great to have a local workforce that is familiar with the company and are able to build a career here.”
Lt. Gov. Jon Husted has made it a priority to foster partnerships between businesses and schools. He and Gov. Mike DeWine are seeking support to pilot a high school model developed in New York that mixes job training with traditional classes and lets students graduate with an associate’s degree in their field.
Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted tours the machining lab at Cleveland’s Max Hayes High School this May. He and Gov. Mike DeWine have made job training, like happens at the city’s main Career Technical Education high school, a priority for the state. [Patrick O’Donnell for Ideastream Public Media]
They are also championing a plan to reimburse Ohio businesses that bring in high school students for paid internships.
Husted said that while businesses are doing more work with schools than in the past, they can still do more. Teachers and businesses, he said, need to show students how the things they learn in school can earn them money as adults, which provides both motivation and context for schoolwork.
Though he won’t go as far as former Gov. John Kasich, who wanted teachers to spend a day at a business each year, Husted still encourages it. And he encourages employers to visit schools, too.
“Employers need to spend time in schools,” Husted said. “Schoolteachers should spend time with employers. And together, everybody will become more knowledgeable and the students will benefit from that because their coursework and their opportunities will be improved because of those connections.”
How well these efforts are working is still unclear. Akron and Cleveland school’s efforts are too new to have more than anecdotal evidence of successes. There are not even good studies of the effects of the academies model in Nashville, which has been in use for a decade
But businesses and the school districts alike are hopeful they are helping students better their career prospects. Akron’s Tecca said just giving students better information helps.
“I think that career exploration is desperately needed for all kids and I’m grateful that we can do that for our kids in Akron Public Schools,” she said.