Meeting discusses workforce readiness related to high school and youngest learners
by Paul Rignell
The Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce and the Elk River Area School Board both act and make decisions with wide community interests in mind, but not until Oct. 25 had they met in a forum to discuss how they could work together.
Chamber and School Board members who could meet for the 8 a.m. session, in the Guardian Angels corporate board room at 508 Freeport Ave., were joined by Chamber President Debbi Rydberg, Superintendent of Schools Mark Bezek and visiting District 30 State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake.
The local business representatives said they want to work with School District 728 in preparing and mentoring area students into becoming top candidates for manufacturing jobs and other careers that will be available locally.
School officials spoke of critical goals for starting their youngest students on the path to success and asked whether they should modify the education being offered for those in the upper grades.
Jane Bunting, current chairperson for the board, said she has been proud that District 728 took on the challenge of offering all-day kindergarten one year before the state approved funding for the program everywhere.
“Nothing can happen if our children cannot read by grade three,” she said. “In essence, you can’t even do math if you can’t read. You can’t do word problems.”
Students are learning their basic skills in the district schools partly through using iPad technology, the board members noted.
In other ways, however, K-12 education remains the same as it has for several decades, they said.
Board Member Sue Farber said that curriculum in recent district health classes used human models wearing clothing and hairstyles from the “Brady Bunch” era.
“Our students couldn’t even relate to that. It was so archaic,” she said.
She added that students and parents can view much of their schools’ curriculum online, and computer technology only grows in use as students continue toward high school.
The school officials spoke of changing roles for bound textbooks in classrooms. Some said there could be questions over the need for continued basic skills training through 12th grade.
“Should we even be teaching handwriting anymore?” Superintendent Bezek asked hypothetically. “When is the last time a kid wrote a letter?”
Chamber representative David Monroy, an attorney in Elk River, replied that English skills are indeed ripe for reinforcement through high school. He said students need to develop “soft skills” to write legibly and put together complete sentences and paragraphs.
Bezek agreed, and said these skills should include learning how to address or react to another person, looking them in the eye.
School Board Member Jolene Jorgensen said she has a daughter, age 23, who has acknowledged recently that those skills are just as important to success in careers as an understanding of technology.
“I think they (young adults) are realizing that as they get older, more mature, they do need that interaction (ability),” Jorgensen said.
She added it is a district goal to make students aware that entering technical schools after 12th grade could lead to careers that can be just as rewarding financially as those that attract college graduates with four-year degrees.
“There are some good-paying jobs out there in manufacturing,” Jorgensen said.
“These two-year schools are a treasure for good-paying jobs, for low-cost education,” the senator said.
Farber said that the district’s high schools have coordinated student tours of area manufacturing plants, along with arranging early college credits for some courses in conjunction with St. Cloud State University.
Rydberg said she believes more area businesses want to build an apprenticeship program with the schools. The school officials advised that businesses should take more initiative in reaching their schools.
Reached for further comment after the forum, Bezek said he believes the board will be eager for more direct contact with area business leaders. He said that any communication with other willing community members “adds to the excitement level, makes it more real for the board members.”