Barge said he thinks the programs, including health care, metals fabrication technology and automotive technology, fill a need for students and open doors for students looking to work in skills-based fields.
“They’ve got some really top-notch career-tech programs with some really innovative teachers,” Barge said following the tour. “Overall, I think they have an awareness of the various learning styles of students and what makes it click for students and giving them the opportunities to be successful.”
Other programs Barge had the opportunity to tour included an agriculture class, computer programming, family and consumer science, construction technology and Air Force JROTC. Principal Deborah Murdock said the programs are designed to help students explore and focus on future careers while developing skills required to work in their desired field.
Murdock and Barge discussed their shared preference for the “European moddel” of incorporating a pilot apprenticeship program with companies for all students looking into skills-based careers.
“The partnerships (Cherokee High School teachers) are making with business and industry in their community are opening up doors of opportunity for the students for work,” Barge said.
In the school’s metal shop, teacher Mike Zoeckler showed Barge how his students use a computer program to operate a plasma cutter and demonstrated how the students learn to weld with donated materials.
Zoeckler said many of his students are able to earn an American Welding Society certification, which is recognized by Georgia Power and other major businesses in the field. He said local business partners looking to hire students often help with costs for them to get certified.
“They walk into their job and they’ve got that certification on their resume and we find that just walks them right through the door,” Zoeckler said.
Murdock said she appreciates that Zoeckler runs his shop like a business so students are prepared for real-world work.
Mike Hagan, who leads the school’s automotive program, said students are able to learn in the full-service shop and automobile lab. During the tour, students were in the process of performing an oil change on a Kia SUV.
“We’ve got everything except for rebuilding the engines,” Hagan said, adding the school has a team that rebuilds engines but it is not part of the program’s curriculum.
Hagan said he also works to try to teach his students soft skills, especially how to work with customers on top of learning all of the basic automotive skills.
“That’s how you get business,” he said.
In a perfect world, Barge said he would like to see every student have an opportunity to experience the world of work in the field they hope to work in, either through an internship or apprenticeship.
Barge ended the visit with a roundtable of teachers and student leaders.
Murdock said the students represented a diverse mix of the Cherokee High School population, as many participating in the career-tech courses also take Advanced Placement courses in preparation for college.
Barge said he was much like many of the students sitting at the roundtable when he was in high school. He served as student government president and earned journalism and academic scholarships to Berry College.
“The one thing I never did is I never taught career-tech,” Barge said. “I taught college prep English but I always knew the value of career tech (programs).”
Barge said education is about teaching the head, heart and the hands.
“I think for a long time in education, we’ve only educated the head and I really think that we prepare our kids the best when we not only give them the head knowledge, but we tell them how to use that knowledge. We give them the application and the hands-on skills to use that knowledge to help them see the relevance in what they’re learning in school.”
“Where I think that we’ve missed the mark is we have this skills gap… What we’re preparing educationally doesn’t match the needs of the industry,” Barge said.
Beginning this fall, every high school freshman will enter a career pathway, which is part of the state’s newly-implemented College and Career Ready Performance Index and will replace Adequate Yearly Progress, the state’s previous yardstick for measuring school achievement.
Murdock said Cherokee often struggled under AYP, with about 50 percent of students provided free or reduced-price lunch and many special needs students penalizing the school under the statewide school success measurement.
“That’s who we are,” Murdock said of the school’s diversity. “I think these kids are successful because they go to school with all kinds of students with all kinds of abilities…I think (AYP) was an inappropriate public perception of what Cherokee High School’s all about. But what we love is there’s all these ways you can meet your Career Pathway.”
Barge said in response to similar concerns, a category has been added to CCRPI to recognize school systems that meet performance targets for typically underperforming sub-groups.
“We want to encourage you guys to continue to do that hard work,” Barge said.
During the question and answer portion of the roundtable, Liz Spell, department chair of ninth grade academy and ninth-grade social studies teacher, asked about how the state plans to fit in the career part of the proposed pathways in with required courses.
“What we don’t want to do from the state level is mandate to systems how to do it, because what works in Bartow may not work in Cherokee,” Barge said.
Barge said the new pathways will require more specific courses for students in each pathway to better prepare them for their desired career, whether they enter into it directly after high school or after post-secondary education.
“It’s going to make sure they have the proper foundation of courses to be successful in the next step,” Barge said.
Barge also addressed the issue of a decreased state budget forcing local school districts to implement furlough days. He said of the 180 school districts in Georgia, 121 are operating on less than 180 days of school each year.
He also lauded the state for being the only state in the country to increase performance on all nationally administered tests despite decreased funding.
“What’s amazing is that the teachers in the state have been able to accomplish that despite these challenges, but my concern is at some point you reach that margin of diminishing returns,” Barge said. “You can only push until at some point you reach a breaking point. Even though there are no additional cuts to school districts, there hasn’t been a return to any of the cuts, so I think we’re going to continue to see the furloughs but at some point it’s going to be tough to continue the progress that you guys are at.”
However, Barge said the economy is turning around and the state is seeing increases in revenues.
“But where advocacy comes into play is getting with your legislators and saying, ‘You know what, we’ve been busting it for a long time and we need to start working on restoring some of these cuts,’” he said.