Schools and Business Align to Build Talent and the Economy

As someone who has long worked in politics, education and business, Kevin Stotts knows the schools of West Michigan pretty well. And he’s convinced they need to do better if the area is to thrive.

“Were not graduating enough kids who are college and career-ready for the region to be successful,” says Stotts, president of a business consortium called Talent 2025.

Area educators agree. That’s why they have formed a regional alliance to better prepare students for the rigors of work and college — and to lobby Lansing for the support schools need to do that.

It’s called West Michigan Talent Triangle, an ambitious advocacy effort launched by leaders of the Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon ISDs.  Since forming last summer, the group has pushed for policies and funding to benefit schools and businesses alike.

“As educators, it’s becoming more clear each and every year that we can’t do this by ourselves,” says Kevin Konarska, superintendent of the Kent ISD. “Weneed to work in partnership with our community to better prepare students for today’s work force. We just can’t do it alone.”

Working Better Together

Working closely with business groups such as Talent 2025, Konarska and other superintendents aim to more effectively communicate both their schools’ needs and successes to state education policy makers.

Indeed, Talent Triangle’s leaders say it is essential for them to work together — and with business CEOs — in the best interests of the entire region.

“In our estimation, the old way of just going to Lansing and complaining, and telling legislators why they shouldn’t do something, isn’t working,” says Karen McPhee, superintendent of the Ottawa Area ISD. “We have to get better at working with our partners in West Michigan, in schools and outside schools, to tell a different story.”

Dave Sipka, superintendent of the Muskegon Area ISD, says Talent Triangle emerged from superintendents’ discussions about how they could pool their resources for common goals.

“We’ve never approached the Legislature from a position of strength,” Sipka says.  “We’ve always been individual ISDs sort of putting our two cents in about issues.” By banding together, he says they can “hopefully initiate policy instead of always reacting to it.”

A key move in that direction was hiring a lobbyist for all three ISDs. Chris Glass, Talent Triangle’s director of legislative affairs, helps knit together the education and business communities and communicate their common goals to legislators.

Finding Common Ground

Glass is uniquely positioned for the job. He is former government affairs director for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and his wife, Sarah, teaches first grade in Kentwood’s Explorer Elementary School. Having a foot in both worlds helps him advocate to legislators on behalf of both.

“We have to be singing the same tune regionally before we can show the work or the vision in Lansing,” Glass says.

He stays in constant contact with the ISD superintendents and local business leaders, and has made several presentations to area chambers of commerce. Last summer he helped convene a meeting of educators, business executives and legislators to explain the impact on schools of the new Common Core academic standards.

“My role is to make sure business understands what is happening in education policy so they can be there to provide support to our advocacy efforts,” Glass says. “We’re helping them to understand the challenges K-12 faces, and we’re helping (schools) respond to what their needs are.”

That kind of cooperation is overdue, says Ron Koehler, Kent ISD assistant superintendent for legislative affairs. The switch from local taxes to state funding under Proposal A, and the move toward uniform academic standards, have reduced local control and the involvement of business leaders on school boards, Koehler said.

“We lost a lot in terms of direct involvement of local community leaders in our schools,” Koehler says. “We are in a sense trying to rebuild that dialogue.”

By strengthening ties with business, he adds, Talent Triangle magnifies educators’ voices in policy debates and helps both sectors “take a common message to Lansing.”

Shared Goals

A key partner in that effort is Talent 2025, a consortium of more than 70 business leaders in 13 counties. The group aims to raise the region’s competitive profile by improving its workforce talent pool — including the talent turned out by its school systems.

It zeroes in with working groups on early childhood, K-12 education and college and career readiness. Superintendents collaborate with CEOs to set goals, such as having 95 percent of students graduate from high school and 64 percent of adults complete post-secondary schooling.

Kent ISD last year adopted four main goals aligned with those of Talent 2025: having all students ready for kindergarten, proficient in reading by third grade and in math by eighth grade, and ready for college or career by graduation.

Along with those hard targets, businesses want schools to teach students the “soft skills” companies look for, says Stotts of Talent 2025.

“Our employers cite the fact so many recent high school graduates really don’t have the soft skills, the employability skills, that they would expect,” such as being able to work in teams, Stotts says.

Further, he adds, not enough students are interested in developing technical career skills. But he praised programs such as Innovation High in Kent ISD and futurePREP in Ottawa Area ISD. The latter is a comprehensive effort by all 12 Ottawa school districts, in cooperation with companies and colleges, to identify needed career skills and instill them in all graduates.

Focused on Careers

That is the kind of program other districts can build on, says Koehler of Kent ISD. In the meantime, he and other educators push to be heard on proposed policy legislation such as mandatory third-grade reading proficiency, and for state support of programs such as concurrent college enrollment in high schools.

Working together, business and education can help narrow down just what it means to be ready for college and career, Koehler says. The “talent” in Talent Triangle doesn’t mean turning out widgets for industry, he adds; it means producing well-rounded graduates for the 21st century.

“It’s an acknowledgment that you can be inspired and pursue your dream, and still be prepared for a job,” Koehler says. “I don’t think inspiring young people to learn and also helping them understand it’s a means to an end are mutually exclusive.”

Adds Glass, “We’re trying to tear down ‘mutually exclusive’ at any point we can.”

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Talent 2025

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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