When the students of Lincoln County High, in Hamlin, West Virginia, roll out of bed for school, nearly half of them are also getting ready to head to work.
The school, serving 850 from the towns of Pleasant View, Griffithsville, Hamlin and Harts, has Simulated Workplace at the core of its Career and Technical Education (CTE) curriculum. Students arrive each day to tackle real tasks in real workplaces that have a real impact on their community.
Educators so far are delighted by the transformations taking place. Longtime educator and CTE director Matt Miller said students are increasingly approaching school with purpose. They are determining in high school if a chosen career is really right for them, and the real-world responsibilities they take on are turning them into leaders.
“Leadership is a big component that each one of our programs hopefully instills in these students,” Miller said, adding that naturally shy students start coming to life in the program.
“From what I see, the confidence level, it’s through the roof.”
The hope is such programs can build the next generation of rural business owners and workers and no longer see so many young leave with no prospects for returning. Over 1,000 rural counties in the United States lost population over the last decade, according to a report by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Young people migrate to cities, aware of education and employment opportunities offered there, but unaware of what’s available in their hometowns. That’s according to educational thought leader Brent Parton, who added it’s easy to forget how cut off kids can be from what the business world around them looks like. He suggested schools stop letting kids just bake in the classroom, without exposure to what’s around them.
“I would be laser-focused on how I show young people that the jobs that they want are, in many respects, right there in front of them,” he said.
Parton is the deputy director at the Center on Education and Skills at New America, a Washington, D.C. think tank. He sees more rural educators rethinking workforce development and fine-tuning secondary education to connect with nearby opportunities. They are collaborating with local organizations and businesses and placing students in real-life, native work settings. This approach follows recent conclusions on what education should look like in the 21st century.
“In an economy where the skill needs are constantly changing, where employers are employing technology in more interactive ways, we need to be thinking more broadly about what counts as learning,” Parton said.
What counts goes beyond the traditional classroom – still common in rural schools – featuring a textbook and lecture format. Parton said communities like Hamlin have the right idea, with schools and local businesses collaborating.
“It’s an education problem, but it’s not just on education to fix it,” he said. “Employers have to be part of the solution too.”
The approach gets students outside the classroom and connected to employers. Students learn the skills to excel in existing jobs. Employers show young people they don’t necessarily have to leave town to find a good job, or students can identify opportunities to start businesses that fill service gaps in the community.
Before West Virginia started Simulated Workplace, the disconnect between employers and education was widening. Business leaders “were actually shouting across the table at education,” according to West Virginia Assistant Superintendent of Schools Kathy D’Antoni. They were saying, “‘You know what? Just send us people that are drug free, will show up on time, can give me a full day’s work, and we’ll train them. You don’t even have to worry about it.’”
This caused D’Antoni and her colleagues to start rethinking the state’s CTE approach.
“I’ve worked with enough teenagers to know that you can’t just talk at them, you’ve got to engage them,” she said.
Simulated Workplace started with eight pilots, which flipped classrooms to a business model. Students ran the businesses. They became the CEOs, the safety inspectors and the job foremen. Five years later, the state has 1,200+ student-run “companies” and 19,000 students participating.
“What is happening in West Virginia right now in our classrooms is phenomenal,” D’Antoni said. “It is way beyond any of the expectations that we had for this program.”
The classrooms operate as any real company, providing actual services to their communities. For example, in response to a major flood two years ago, a group of simulated companies collaborated across county and school lines to build 15 tiny, turnkey homes, and delivered them to the governor to distribute to people in need. The homes came stocked with Christmas trees and presents. D’Antoni observed the satisfaction in the students as they visited individuals that received the homes.
“Some of the kids who built these homes came from homes that aren’t as good as what they were giving away,” she said.
Day to day, students are expected to behave like real employees. They are even drug tested.
They are engaged in their communities, attend county commission meetings and are important contributors to industry advisory meetings. They are rising to the level of what’s needed to get the job done.
“You see a child who is so shy and can’t talk and is backward in a classroom who becomes a safety director for their company, and all of a sudden, they’re up giving safety lessons on Fridays because that’s their job,” D’Antoni said.
She added, “If I had my way, I would change the entire education system to this model.”
Back in Hamlin, the economy isn’t what it used to be, with coal mining jobs down. Yet there is a pride students feel for the community – a pride enhanced by experiences in their Simulated Workplaces. Sectors include agriculture, automotive technology, early childhood education, health care, law enforcement and many others.
“I would love to stay in Lincoln County just because the people are great,” said senior Kelsi Bell who is working at the local elementary school as part of the early childhood development program. “I want to make sure that parents are happy with where their children are going [to school] and making sure that their children are getting the education they need to further their lives.”
Ryan Burton, a senior in the computer science program is considering the possibility of running a tech business from his hometown someday.
“Not only do I want to stay true to where I grew up, I also want to help the community that I grew up with,” he said. “I think that with the right people, anything is possible with getting a certain type of business or program involved in the county.”
All the programs in Hamlin have an advisory committee. They partner with nearby business professionals, including dealerships, the carpenters union, the local newspaper and others.
Savannah Quintrell, a student in the publishing program, writes for the paper, makes flyers for the community and does other graphic design work for local businesses. She has already taken home awards for her work. And Watch out for the students in the public safety program, because they are already doing traffic stops. With a former police officer as their instructor, they are authorized to do so. In fact, Lincoln County High School is the only law and public safety program in the state with its own police car.
“Kids aren’t stupid,” Parton said. “They know when they feel like their time is being wasted. And they know when they feel like they’re doing something interesting. And the biggest way to get students engaged and interested is making them feel like they’re solving problems that are around them in their communities.”
Whatever the program, students build bonds as they go about each school day and workday. The result is a sense of purpose and belonging. With such a buy-in, Miller hopes the program ultimately translates into a resurgence for the local economy.
“Hopefully, we get to the point to where some of our students that go through and graduate will actually become business owners within our community,” he said. “That will be one of the major focuses, as time goes on, that we would like to see.”