In a series of columns last year, I introduced readers to three very important words – all means all. Through the series, I reaffirmed our dedication to providing a high-quality educational experience for all students in the Aiken County Public School District. Our commitment to these powerful words and the nearly 25,000 students they represent has not changed.
A new year now provides a fresh opportunity to engage anew with our community stakeholders. My “Future-Ready” series will address the impending workforce deficiencies in our community, and how our school district is responding to it. I will discuss our district’s embrace of new challenges and detail how we are raising expectations by providing accelerated learning opportunities to spark innovation and competitiveness.
Future topics will include the importance of providing solution-driven (not product-driven) graduates as answers to community needs; leveraging relationships with industry resources in Aiken County; and the many benefits of work-based learning opportunities to our students.
I will begin with a bold statement – within the next five years, we anticipate that our community will lose half its current workforce to retirement while gaining more than 37,000 new job opportunities. That is no typographical error.
This issue is not one our school district can confront alone. Rather, this challenge is one we must face together as a community. The economic repercussions of our failure in this regard will reach into every home and every business in our county.
The great news is that we are a community rich in resources and one filled with those who always are willing to step forward when challenges arise. We have a responsibility to you, as a community stakeholder, to provide leadership within the area of workforce development, and meaningful steps already are being taken and new partnerships being fashioned to prevent this potential calamity.
We are reaching out within the context of a new community initiative called Aiken Works, which will change the workforce development dynamic in our community by energizing an interconnected framework of passionate area leaders and professionals. Our goal as a school district will be to supply qualified workers in four key areas – energy, health, industrial manufacturing and technology. You may expect additional information on this community initiative in the weeks ahead.
Also, many may already be familiar with one aspect of our accelerated learning initiative, through an announcement in 2016 of the establishment of thematic programs at each of our high schools. Such a wide-ranging effort to spur growth and achievement in our high schools by committing to innovation and devoting ourselves to competitiveness is necessary, but even these bold initiatives are not enough – not with the seriousness of the challenges we face in workforce development and community staffing needs.
We needed to undertake a fundamental re-evaluation of the middle-school experience. This long process yielded a number of developments and enhancements, including new academic progressions. These opportunities will have the power to supercharge a student’s path to success by offering courses such as English I and geometry in the eighth grade, algebra I in the seventh grade and advanced-level core courses in all middle-school levels.
We also wanted to spur greater creativity and challenge our middle-school students to learn to think and compete like true innovators. With that in mind, we have renewed a commitment to provide more opportunities for students to share and test their skills in county, regional and statewide Science Fair and MathCounts competitions. We received 100-percent participation in both events from our middle schools this year.
These events, and others, such as the annual Future City competition, will become great showcases for the achievements of our students as we encourage our future technicians and innovators to dream big.
This commitment to enhanced rigor and accelerated learning also extends into the elementary grade levels, where we have changed our delivery model for reaching Gifted and Talented (GT) students and expanded processes for identifying advanced students. To provide more opportunity at these formative grade levels, it was necessary to increase the number of elementary-level teachers certified to serve as GT instructors. Through advanced educator training, the number of GT-endorsed teachers in grades three through five has increased from eight teachers to 83.
By combining state- identifying measures with our own local methods to identify high-potential students and increasing the number of GT-endorsed teachers, we’ve more than doubled the amount of students served in the Gifted and Talented program at these grade levels (from 650 to more than 1,500 students).
Through aggressive accelerating learning initiatives, we will answer the community’s call to provide a new generation of highly qualified and skilled workers. We look forward to widespread and limitless community support to achieve this, and are confident that, together, we will drive Aiken County to further prosperity through a sustainable pipeline of future-ready graduates well- prepared for the demands of our area’s workforce needs.
(The writer is Aiken County, S.C., school superintendent.)