Career education program overhaul clears key hurdle

A plan to overhaul Louisiana’s troubled career and technical education program neared final approval Thursday.

The changes cleared a committee of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is expected to sign off on the new rules Friday.

The outline, which is called Jump Start, is supposed to align school districts, two-year colleges and private firms into regional teams to prepare high school juniors and seniors for top-paying jobs.

“This is something we needed in our state 25 years ago,” said Jeff Lynn, executive director of workforce development programs in the state Department of Economic Development.

The overhaul, which has been in the works for more than a year, won approval from the Academic Goals and Insutructional Improvement Committee without dissent.

Special-education advocates resumed their criticism of the plan, arguing that it does little to aid children with special needs.

“We have to think about students with disabilities,” said Liz Gary, who lives in Mandeville.

Critics also downplayed the timing of a task force of educators and others, which is supposed to craft ways for Jump Start to aid special education students.

“We’re the afterthought,” Gary added.

Others said that any such panel needs parents, not just educators.

Louisiana’s career and technical education options have been criticized for years, and only 1 percent of students earn a career diploma in high school.

State Superintendent of Education John White, the chief promoter of Jump Start, said the new system will end the state’s practice of labeling students in the eighth-grade as career or college-bound, and pave the way for them to earn industry credentials that lead to top-flight jobs.

White said all the positives of the overhaul mean the state “can provide a pathway for thousands of kids.”

The state has about 75,000 high school juniors and seniors in public schools.

White said last week that, in time, roughly 25,000 students will be taking part in Jump Start.

Under the plan, students who pursue the career path would split their school days between workplace training, such as learning how to be an electrician, and traditional courses.

Doing so will allow them to earn credentials that are supposed to qualify them for quality jobs after high school or more college training.

Targeted industries include construction, engineering, energy, transportation and health care.

Iain Vasey, executive director of business development for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, praised the plan as one that will address a long-standing concern of employers.

“The biggest thing that we hear is skilled labor,” he said.

Jim Owens, an education consultant, said he recently watched 12 students at Plaquemine Senior High School sign “contracts” with employers pledging to earn their high school diplomas while learning other skills and remaining drug free, in hopes of landing well-paying jobs.

“The parents were there,” Owens said of the ceremony. “They were about in tears.”

Special-education advocates and White repeatedly disagreed on the academic requirements of Jump Start, including whether participants have to earn a minimum score on the ACT, which measures college readiness.

White said no such requirement exists.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, told the committee she is concerned about training levels for the employees of private businesses who teach students and how those instructors will be evaluated by the state.

“The good thing about Jump Start is that it allows those not aiming for college to focus on a career path,” Meaux said in an interview earlier this week.

She also said careers offered in the state plan are tilted toward males.

The changes are supposed to take effect for the 2016-17 school year.

Regional teams that start early are eligible for state grants of up to $75,000.