02/22/08 — WorkKeys program expected to expand

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WorkKeys program expected to expand

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 22, 2008 1:56 PM

After talking about facilities for much of their meeting Monday morning, the thoughts of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education turned to programs -- specifically the new WorkKeys initiative and a proposal by the county to help address the dropout rate.

Currently, WorkKeys, the testing component of the county's new workforce development program, is being piloted in three of the county's six high schools.

Begun this year by WORKS Director Diane Ivey, WorkKeys allows people -- in this case 11th-graders -- the opportunity to earn either gold, silver or bronze certificates showing their proficiency in such basic job skill qualifications as reading and math.

Those certificates can then be used by businesses to determine which students best meet their employment needs -- all in an effort to help reduce the need for on-the-job training of basic skills.

Bringing the program up for discussion Monday were the county commissioners who wanted to know why it was only being used in three schools, and whether it could be expanded to all six if the funding was made available. Each test costs $15 per student.

"We put this in place in response to the business community," county school Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor said. "This is a first for us. Something new like this, we wanted to do a pilot. Next year it should be in all the schools."

All the district wanted to do this year, he explained, is to figure out how the program works and how it might best be implemented.

"We're trying to figure out what grade level would benefit more from this testing," he said. "We want our kids to have the best possible outcome, yet we also want to give them time to retest. Our goal is to have all our kids to place at the gold, silver or bronze levels."

There was some disagreement, though, as to whether the program should be used in the later grades to provide information to future employers, at the younger grades as a diagnostic tool, or at both.

"If we have a problem up front we can see that," Commissioner Jack Best said. "We've got a dropout problem. My thought is if we can catch some of our students early with these tests ..."

School board member Rick Pridgen, though, said he saw the test "as more of a competency thing."

But it seemed as if the two sides were willing to wait on the results of the pilot program before making any decisions about the future of the program.

The other issue brought up by the county commission involved the Day Reporting Center and an idea to address the dropout rate.

Basically, County Manager Lee Smith explained, the commissioners want to help develop a mentoring program for youths who are at risk of dropping out, and they want to run it through the Day Reporting Center, which typically offers GED, job training and substance abuse programs to young adults either awaiting trial or out on parole.

The program, he explained, while focusing primarily on keeping students in school, would be designed so that if they do drop out, they can have an opportunity to earn their GED and potentially get help through a job placement program.

"We want to keep them in school, but we know we're going to lose some. I think this can (work)," Smith said, stressing that it would not interfere with any of the mentoring programs already in place.

School officials, however, seemed skeptical about offering anything that might appear to encourage students already on the brink to go ahead and drop out.

"Our focus is on offering alternatives to keep (kids) in school," Taylor said.

Still, school board Chairwoman Thelma Smith seemed at least pleased that the county was looking to help.

"There are plenty of people who need help," she said. "We've reached out for help and from a lot of different areas, we're getting a response."