BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – With a pronounced skills gap in Lee County, career training education is floating to the top of state school priority lists and U.S Rep. Dave Loebsack visited Fort Madison High School Thursday to look at what’s happening in that arena locally.
Loebsack took a 30-minute tour with Fort Madison High School Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater and Principal Greg Smith visiting the school’s welding, culinary, automotive, and ag classes, and spoke with instructors about the programs.
Loebsack asked what the biggest need was and Smith told him resources to expand the program.
Smith said he uses federal Perkins grants to help put equipment and supplies in the programs, but that money is short lived. He said local businesses and industries have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the high school programs, but resources are still a high priority to expand.
“I’ve got a waiting list. I’m out of teachers, I’m out of space… We need an off-campus regional center where all three high schools in Lee County can come, even from out of state if we’ve got room,” Smith said.
Other regional education centers, such as the center near Kirksville College in Cedar Rapids, offer certificate programs where students can earn dual credits on site, including job certifications, and go to work right out of high school.
Loebsack, who taught at Cornell College in Iowa for 24 years, said the generation that looked at college as the ultimate prep for a career has passed.
“I don’t believe that people need to go to a four year college, or get a degree beyond the graduate degree,” he said.
“Some may not need to do that at all. It may not be for them, they may care about it and that’s fine, but they can get a great job without doing that. They might have to go to a community college, but not always do they even have to do that.”
Slater said the district is working closely with industrial and business partners to identify how the district can help with demands on those employers.
“Greg’s a part of it, too. We sit at the table with business and industry and say, ‘What is it that you’re needing, what is the workforce demanding, and what can we do to help to help get kids plugged in?’. Those conversations are important to have,” Slater said.
Loebsack said he’s not convinced that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVoss knows what needs to be done, but said Congress needs to make sure funding for such programs as Perkins grants stay in place.
“That’s why CTE is so important. We’ll see what happens with budget caps and by Sept. 30, we have to have appropriations done. We did our job in the House, but the Senate is lagging behind, which always seems to be the case,” Loebsack said.
“The good news is more and more schools are doing exactly what you folks are doing here. Again, it goes back to what are these students going to do when they are done here, and just recognizing that setting people on a four-year track and beyond is not necessarily the way to go.”
Loebsack said the economy is a big factor in maintaining the need for these programs so high schoolers are a valued resource for employers.
“As long as the economy is going strong, we’re going to be able to get these kids jobs.”
Loebsack also asked how the district was performing with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is the federal education mandate that replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015 under President Barack Obama.
“You don’t have such a straight jacket on you as you did with No Child Left Behind, right?” Loebsack asked Fort Madison Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater.
Slater said the district is still is responsible for the Iowa Assessment, but school leaders have been working on additional assessments that identify real-time student needs.
“We’re still accountable to the Iowa Assessment and we make sure we do that, but one of the things our district has been working on the last four years is multiple assessments, formative assessments. Doing that on-time real-time instruction and then that real time feedback for kids and teachers,” Slater said.
He said No child Left Behind focused on everyone being above average which really made no sense.
“I think No Child Left Behind is a classic example of Congress making a law not knowing what the hell they were doing.” Loebsack said.
Slater said she believes the district is assessing students at a higher level than the government requires.
“We need to because those are the faces we see very day. Parents are sending them to us, they’re expecting them to be successful so we need to make sure we are doing everything we can,” Slater said.