Shawnee Mission school board candidates on the issues: Getting students college and career ready

We asked candidates vying for Shawnee Mission school board about their thoughts on how the district should be preparing students for alternative pathways other than a four-year college degree after graduation. Currently, the district offers a number career prep programs, including culinary arts, where students learn in a working kitchen at Broadmoor Bistro at the Center for Academic Achievement, above. Picture from a pre-pandemic session, via Broadmoor Bistro's Facebook page.

In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for Shawnee Mission school board address. Based on your feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire touching on the most important issues to patrons of the district.

Each day this week, we will publish the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we are publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:

There’s been increased attention in recent years to the need to provide alternative paths for students who are not interested in or able to attend college. What should the district be doing for non-college bound students? 

Below are the answers the Post received from the candidates on this issue:

SM East Area

Zach Roberts

Every student should begin thinking about career opportunities prior to graduation from high school. It is assumed that many will go on to college, but only 27% of those who graduate college end up working in a field related to their college degree.

There is value in education. Employment rates among college graduates are higher than high school graduates (87% versus 74%), while only 57% of 25-34 year olds who don’t graduate high school are employed. However, post secondary education does come at a financial cost. According to a recent publication, 39% of college graduates are unsure whether their degree was worth the financial investment. This is a relevant consideration. Student loan debt has tripled since 2006, secondary to rising college enrollment and cost.

Not all employment opportunities require a college degree. Many of my high school friends found successful careers as carpenters, welders, plumbers, and car mechanics, without having to pay for four years of college. There are many pathways to many versions of success. Recent labor studies for the state of Kansas anticipate that about 36% of jobs require a Bachelor’s degree and 35% an Associate’s degree or trade certificate.

The district should assume an active role in student assessment and post secondary education planning, and should help students think about future opportunities and goals in a financially efficient manner. Our community needs workers of all types, but not all require a four year college degree.

Mary Sinclair (incumbent)

Shawnee Mission School District offers students a wide variety of course and program options along their path to high school completion. The choices include 19 Career and Technical Education pathways, 7 Signature Programs, 11 regionally vetted industry-recognized credentials, along with a range of electives and extracurricular activities. The district has been rebuilding supports and refreshing programs incrementally, in part, as the state legislature continues to phase-in restoration of funding for public education.

The three objectives of the district’s community driven Strategic Plan place the interests of students at the forefront of the district’s mission. The district’s mission is to help students and their family develop a personalized learning plan to achieve graduation requirements, in alignment with Kansas Department of Education’s Kansans Can Vision for public education. Student interest and asset inventories provide input on the multitude of paths a student may pursue in life after graduation.

The districtwide Career and Technical Education and Signature Programs are open to all SMSD high school students, with transportation provided and, when possible, in partnership with area industry and business. The addition of one counselor at each high school was accelerated to facilitate real-world learning opportunities and intentional district efforts to provide equitable access for all students.

One of the SMSD Signature Programs is Culinary Arts & Hospitality centered around the Broadmoor Bistro and the Broadmoor Urban Farm — an enhancement initiated by the students and bistro faculty. Another is Project Blue Eagle which allows students to explore career paths in fire management, emergency services, corrections, security, law and law enforcement. Students work with an actual ambulance and firetruck gifted to the district by community partners. The Career and Technical Education pathways include construction and design, manufacturing woods and welding, mobile equipment maintenance, network systems (beginning 2022-23) and much more. Project SEARCH is a partnership with AdventHealth providing work-based learning opportunities for students with disabilities.

District support for these programs and for students has also been strengthened through community partnerships. The Shawnee Mission Education Foundation staffs a half-time Business to Education Program Officer. The Kauffman Foundation has forged a Real World Learning initiative connecting 50 area school districts with business and industry to help students acquire Market Value Assets (MVAs). MVAs include work experiences, industry-recognized credentials, entrepreneurial experience and dual-college credit. The district’s Real World Learning goal is that by 2030 every student will graduate with a diploma and at least one Market Value Asset.

SM West area

April Boyd-Noronha

Over the past two decades, the cost of earning a college degree has risen, and an increasing number of high school graduates are opting out of college. According to a recent report by U.S. News and World Report, “average tuition and fees at private National Universities have jumped 144%. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have risen 171%. In-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have grown the most, increasing 211%.”

The latest numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show the largest college enrollment decline in a decade. Kansas ranked fourth among states with the largest decreased enrollment. While some of this decline can be attributed to COVID-19, college enrollment was experiencing a decline even before the global pandemic. Students and families want options, and alternative career pathways for students is critical to equipping the next-generation workforce.

The workforce of the future will look significantly different than past generations, with higher percentages of workers required to posses technical expertise because of emerging technology. The Shawnee Mission School District, and 50 other school districts across the region, have partnered with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to provide internships and client-connected projects to equip students with credentials in labor sectors most poised for growth. These fields include advanced manufacturing, project management and engineering. These kind of collaborative efforts will prepare students for the world they will one day lead.

Sean Claycamp

College is a great choice for many students, but as the question highlights, not the only choice. Alternate paths include trade schools, apprenticeships, the military, law enforcement, plus others. All these options should be treated as equally viable for students and a great way to prosper.

By the time an SMSD student reaches graduation it is OK — and, I think, preferable — for the student to be reminded regularly that the intent of any additional schooling, training, etc., is to prepare them for a viable career that allows the student to thrive in their community.

SMSD has recently done some homework on this by surveying the local economy to find where the greatest need for workers will be. This should be expanded further to include career paths related to trade schools, the military, and those I’ve listed above.

It is certainly OK for a teacher to encourage a student with a proficiency in academics to attend college. However, if a student shows interest and ability in an alternate path, it should be equally encouraged. SMSD should encourage the inclusion of tradespeople, companies that offer outstanding apprentice programs, the military and law enforcement recruiting programs to be a part of career programs within the district. Many of our students have parents who excel in these areas, and these kids want to follow in their footsteps. It should be encouraged if that is the right path for a student.

I’d also love to see the district hold an annual “Gap Year” event where families can learn more about the benefits and pitfalls of a potential post-graduation gap year. Studies are now showing for many students a gap year can provide real growth. SMSD should provide programming to families on gap year options including volunteer work, internships and real-world employment opportunities in areas of interest to better orient them as they enter college.

No student should be left behind without a path to thrive upon graduation in a career path that he or she will enjoy and be successful in.

At-Large Area

Brian Neilson

I would hope that we provide every opportunity to give our students a chance at a lucrative skills-based career. I don’t know how to identify those students that are steering that direction, but if the earlier the better. In addition to the school the district runs teaching skills in the hospitality and trades industries, maybe we can work on apprenticeships with businesses that can begin training as young as 16 to work in a career in information technology (networks, running programs, monitoring systems, trouble shooting and tech support).

Also, I learned about this program on 60 Minutes a few years ago: The Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant in Alabama invited 20 high school seniors to participate in a multi-year training event that is fully paid for. The jobs that need addressing most could eventually pay upwards of $80,000 per year as the students grow in their skills. They are highly technical skills that are not taught in high school or college. The program is modeled on one in Germany. While we cannot control Ford and General Motors that both have plants in the metro area, this is a great example of a private/public partnership. The students spend afternoons at the plant Monday through Friday learning key elements of automotive production that are specific to Mercedes-Benz. After the two- to three-year apprenticeship period ends, students are likely to be hired as full-time employees

I know that is one very specific anecdote. But it was so powerful to me that I never forgot about it. I don’t know what all the answers are. Business has a need, and SMSD is serving some areas, but businesses are still short staffed and students are graduating college with degrees that are hard to leverage in the real world to pay off their debt. There is a gap and I hope the district will continue an active dialogue with businesses to identify what opportunities we can provide as the economy evolves at breakneck speed.

I applaud the district’s existing program at the Broadmoor Center where many programs spanning public service, IT and hospitality are being provided.

Heather Ousley (incumbent)

This is an exciting question, as the district is engaging with other local school districts and the Kauffman Foundation to support the Real World Learning Initiative, that places students in internships with businesses, and allows them to get career experience in the fields of their interest.

I want every child in our district to be prepared in a way where they can be successful at the two-year or four-year college or university of their choice after graduation. But it is also important to ensure our students are prepared to enter the work force, too. Achieving a bachelor’s degree can be an expensive endeavor, and many of our students need to be able to financially support themselves after they leave our buildings.

The Real World Learning initiative allows students to complete and obtain, “Market Value Assets.” This can be done through internships, completing projects for business community partners, entrepreneurial experiences, college credit (our goal would be to have all graduates obtain 9 hours of college credit prior to high school graduation) or by obtaining Industry Recognized Credentials in the industry they’d like to pursue, so that they can place these credentials on their resume when job hunting after high school, allowing them to easily transition into full time employment.

You can read more about the district’s Real World Learning program here.

On Thursday, we will publish the candidates’ responses to the following question: 

The district fell short on its projected enrollment in 2020 and 2021 — specifically in its youngest grades, including kindergarten. These drops will likely impact the amount of state funding the district receives in the future and thereby influence future budgets you will be asked to vote on. How can the district prepare for these potential budget impacts? What are your ideas on how to increase student enrollment?