April 2014 Engage Recap

April 2014 Engage Recap

Guest post from 2013-14 Engage Breakfast Series guest blogger Alicia Dietrich. Alicia is a public affairs representative at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. See the end of this post for the podcast from the breakfast.

Th April 2014 Engage breakfast tackled the complex topic of HB5—the education reform bill passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013 that will bring about major change in public education beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.

Panelists included Mike Meroney, a consultant for the Jobs for Texas Coalition; Edmund Oropez, the Associate Superintendent of High Schools for Austin Independent School District who is overseeing the implementation of HB5 requirements throughout Austin’s public high schools; and Drew Scheberle, Senior Vice President at the Austin Chamber of Commerce who oversees Federal and State Advocacy as well as Education and Talent Development.

The bill cut the number of required state tests that students must pass to graduate from 15 to 5, eliminated the requirement that made the tests account for 15 percent of a student’s final grade in a subject, and outlined new course requirements for graduation.

Meroney advocated for the new graduation plans because he says they allow more flexibility at the local level and provide students who are not college-bound a path to graduation where they can gain technical or vocational skills.

“We [the Jobs for Texas Coalition] had found that many of the jobs in our industries were going unfilled because of a skills gap,” said Meroney. “And primarily in the skilled trades—welders, pipe fitters, nurses, plumbers, HVAC, trucking. You name it, there was a large number of jobs that were going unfilled. My group argued that we had built a ‘one size fits all’ education system for a not-so ‘one size fits all’ workforce.”

Scheberle and Oropez both pointed out that administrators and counselors would need to be vigilant to make sure that minority students were not funneled into the lowest plan by default.

“We’ve placed a heavy emphasis on college-ready and getting kids prepared for a career,” said Oropez. “We have to guard against moving backwards. Now, we would argue that we do not need a law to force us to be able to do that, but we do need to make sure that we put checks and balances in place locally to ensure all kids are going to have those opportunities.”

Oropez said that AISD is working hard to implement the new program and that all 6,000 eighth-graders were undergoing counseling to help them choose their path to graduation. He pointed out that implementation has been challenging since no new funding has been allocated for the additional advising required to make sure students get on the right track, or to develop new programs for the different career tracks.

All three panelists said that local business leaders will need to step up to help students obtain the skills they need to have successful careers, whether they go the college route or not. Specifically:

  • Businesses could offer internships, externships, and shadowing programs to high school students to help them gain real-world experience and a real sense of where an education could take them.
  • Businesses should reinforce the message that more math and science classes are required for many career fields, and encourage students to take the most challenging classes available.
  • Retirees may be able to fill some gaps in skills-based vocational classes that school districts have trouble filling, since they can’t compete with private-sector salaries.

Full Audio from the Event

Download this audio file (MP3)