Alaska News

Give Alaska's youth more options for career success

Alaska is making good strides towards improving our education system. Over the last ten years we have increased standardized test scores in every area except fourth grade literacy. Schools across the state have lowered their dropout rates, and the graduation rate is consistently rising. But there is more we need to do to make sure our children become successful adults, armed with the skills to get well-paying, rewarding jobs that can provide for their families and create a higher standard of living. It is not acceptable to let even one child fail when there is something we could've done to prevent it.

Despite improving graduation rates, Alaska still has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation. Many students drop out because they struggle academically. But, according to several new studies, an increasing number of students drop out because they feel their classes are boring, not relevant to their current lives, or won't provide a pathway to achieve their dreams. That's why we need to step in before it's too late, before these children lose interest in their education.

Over the past few decades, the mantra of the U.S. education system has been to increase the number of students who go on to post-secondary education. The "College for All" rhetoric was aimed at making sure high school students arrived at universities prepared to succeed at academic learning. The problem with this is that not all students learn best from books in a classroom. In fact, the opposite is true for many students. They learn better in an environment in which work and learning are integrated with a clear occupational goal in sight. And now, we are learning the best time for this guidance begins during middle school, before students have a chance to become disengaged.

Middle school career education lays the groundwork for future career development by helping students understand the relationship between high school performance and future alternatives, develop a positive attitude towards work, and become aware of the many options they will have in the working world. Not all students want to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, or teachers. Career or vocational counseling in middle schools helps students learn what they are good at, what they are interested in, and what they would like to do as they choose their next steps in life. It gives them a hook -- a reason to stay in school so that they can pursue these dreams.

That's exactly what my colleagues and I in the State Senate are working to fix. We want to catch students before they fail. The Legislature began last year by passing Senate Bill 84, which creates a steady, secure stream of funding for vocational-technical programs so Alaska's high schools can offer cutting edge technical and career programs that focus on hands-on workplace training for jobs that don't necessarily require a college degree.

Now, we are working to establish a vocational-technical education package in middle schools. Senate Bills 170 and Senate Bill 199 recognize that the seventh grade is when many students start making important life choices. SB170 provides for career counseling for every student in seventh, ninth and 11th grades. SB199 expands vocational technical funding to include seventh and eighth graders.

Not only do these voc-tech programs better engage Alaska's youth and increase our graduation rates, they also help develop a dynamic and diverse workforce for our state. Right now, Alaska needs these highly-specialized workers in the constantly growing healthcare industry, the tourism, hospitality and service sectors, as well as aviation and construction trades. We are going to need even more of these workers when proposed massive infrastructure projects such as the Susitna Dam or a gas pipeline get underway in the coming years.

Now is the time to give our kids vocational education options for success, so that all Alaskans have a brighter future and our best jobs go to the ones who deserve them the most -- our children.

Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, is Majority Leader of the Alaska Senate and Co-Chair of the Senate Education Committee.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer if Alaska's lieutenant governor and a former state senator.

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