FULTON, Ill. — River Bend School District educational leaders are focusing on dual pathways for students, hoping to address the tools needed for students to succeed outside of high school.

Lately, the school board and its educators are beefing up the approach.

“We hear continually at this table earlier, earlier, earlier and more, more, more,” said Superintendent Darryl Hogue. “We have to walk away as the school leaders hearing (that). That is important.”

Fulton High School offers to its seniors a community involvement course that introduces the students to work life. FHS Principal Chris Tennyson measures a successful post-high school graduate as someone who gets a job in a field that they are interested in – “something they love to do,” he said.

However, coming out of conversations between the board and River Bend faculty, there may be better ways for the district to get students interested in a future career.

“Schools need to do a better job of making everything we do relevant to the student,” Tennyson said. “All students are either going into the workforce, military or to college for some manner of post-secondary certificate or degree and we need to do the best job we can in preparing them.”

On the west side of the river, Iowa State Sen. Rita Hart has spoken about the skilled labor gap in the area. The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a monthly job opening/turnover survey and this summer, openings reached an all-time high since the beginning of the measure in 2000. The about 6 million openings suggest what the Gateway area has already been discussing, a mismatch in skills needed for the work demanded.

The narrative for college has changed toward a push in training and education for the sustainable career. From a report for the Department of Labor, Futurework, the “best jobs” require some education and training.

River Bend hopes to prepare its students for this reality.

“I also am a firm believer that school districts should serve their local communities and right now we have a big shortage of people to fill manufacturing jobs in our area,” Tennyson said.”So partnering with those companies to get students interested in working for them is very important.”

Already in place for students at Fulton High School is the Whiteside Area Career Center, in Sterling, Illinois, where students get training in various fields for part of the school day, and a similar community involvement course that dives into local businesses for a closer look at some business sectors. But education leaders wonder if that is enough.

In a recent meeting, ideas we’re thrown around the table: possible dual credits at more area colleges, apprenticeships and just general knowledge of what to expect after high school. They want students to have a firm grasp on the reality of what they think they want to do for a career, or at least start thinking about it.

School Board President Dan Portz suggested a career cruising test, which takes place generally in eighth grade, to start as early as fourth grade.

“That gives us the opportunity… to start them down that path to help them know, because they don’t know yet,” Portz said.

He questioned if it was possible to find a student’s path of interest and expand on it as they go through primary education. That is the goal of the senior-offered community involvement class, to give students the “crucial” ability to see if a particular career is right for them, according to Tennyson. He doesn’t want to see students focus hard down a career path just to later find out after money and time spent that that career isn’t for them. The idea of furthering workforce development hopes to decrease the chances of that happening to River Bend students after graduation.

“College can be a vary expensive career exploration endeavor if students end up switching majors multiple times,” Tennyson said. “We have a major principal shortage in Illinois and I have taken a student every semester the last two years and let them work with me. Three students have decided that it would be a great job for them and one realized it would not be her first choice, which was great for her to realize before she went off to college.”

And it’s not just college. More and more, Tennyson has found that students need training in the careers they want. The narrative has changed over the years as students aren’t urged to attend a four-year university.

“For some students that may want to be an electrician,” he said, “that would involve getting accepted in a union apprenticeship and then working their way into a full-time job. If a student wants to be a welder then they should attend a certified welding school and get their degree or certificate for welding.”

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