Kansas Is Blurring The Lines Between Classroom And Workplace

Sep 6, 2019

The classroom and workplace have traditionally been kept separate.

But a redesign that’s been going on for four years in Kansas could blend the two in ways aimed to help both students and employers.

Employers are now a common sight in school hallways. Mechanics show seventh graders how to diagnose a Jeep in the school parking lot. Eighth graders visit boiler factories. Schools hope to benefit from field-earned expertise. Businesses get a head start on recruiting.

Work-based learning in Kansas is still limited — usually by money and the need for volunteers. But state-led interest is leading to new partnerships.

Here are four ways Kansas businesses and educators work together.

Work goes to school

Career day at schools are changing — they’re no longer static question-and-answer sessions with a police officer. They’re also no longer limited to a single day.

Last year, the Wichita district brought in four businesses for several days of hands-on lessons. Davis-Moore Auto Group taught middle school students how to tint windows. Spirit Aerosystems helped students build model prototype planes. Wildcat Construction had students build miniature dams and test soil samples.

Wichita Public Schools said it had to kill a similar program in the past after cuts in state funding. But with state subsidies cranking up after a years-long court fight, the district is bringing the program back as a pilot.

The Kansas State Department of Education wants to use career days to expose students to overlooked jobs. Wichita’s program is designed to show off industries short on needed talent. A classroom visit won’t solve a business’ immediate labor shortage, but some companies hope to attract more students into the pipeline.

“It will benefit their industry as a whole if it can get more people interested in coming to work for them,” said Suzy Finn, the coordinator of Wichita Public School’s business partnerships.

School goes to work

Business showcases also happen outside school walls.

For about six years, about as many as two dozen Hutchinson eighth graders visited a different local business every month. Those after-school visits come at the end of a week of taking classes on specific industries.

For medical science, students take each other’s vital signs at the district's career and technical education academy. They dissect sheep hearts. The students visit Hutchinson Regional Medical Center and talk with the head of each department.

“I don’t know if all that could be done during the school day,” said Nancy Bether, the coordinator of the program at the Boys and Girls Club of Hutchinson. “This is just maybe a little bit above and beyond.”

About 72% of schools took similar trips in the 2019 school year — up from 65% last year, according to a survey by the state’s education department.

Internships and apprenticeships

About 30% of Kansas school districts had students taking an internship in 2019. In 2018 it was 21%.

Apprenticeships have more structured training programs than internships and a guarantee of pay. But they didn’t fare as well in the state education department’s survey. Less than 5% of Kansas schools had students with apprenticeships last year. That number dropped further in 2019.

But the Kansas Department of Commerce says a tight labor market is creating new interest in apprenticeships. Businesses want to hire more workers who will stick around. The department says apprenticeships achieve that.

“I’m not lacking any interest as far as getting programs built,” said Chastity Troxel, the registered apprenticeship coordinator at the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Jobs in construction and electricians have been more traditionally associated with apprenticeships. But the Department of Commerce says they're seeing more interest from industries like health care and education.

No business to learn from? Start your own

The board running the Lucille M. Hall Museum in St. John was looking to start a new business. It turned to the local high school.

In 2017, two St. John High School classes developed a business plan for a new pizzeria in a storefront owned and recently renovated by the museum. Teachers supervised while the owner of a local Christmas tree farm lent his business experience.

The students learned how to deal with local competition. The class held a product development phase. They learned how to create a budget while the profit margin on their pizzas was 3.5%.

“The first year we did a little better than break even,” said Tony Delp, a member of the Tiger Town Pizza board of directors. “Not a whole lot better but still had money to give a couple scholarships that first year.”

The Kansas State Department of Education puts such entrepreneurial projects in the same category as internships and apprenticeships — a practical way of giving students career experience. About 14% of Kansas schools had similar programs in 2019.

Part of the challenge of a student-led startup is that the experience isn’t repeatable for next year’s class. While some students work part-time for Tiger Town Pizza, everyday operation is handled by the museum.

Still, the museum is talking with the school about bringing another class in — perhaps to run the pizzeria’s social media or inventory control.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

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