Shannon Nickinson: To fix the “skills gap,” high schools need a new look

 It’s time to adjust our idea of what high school should look like.

The Atlantic is the latest publication to highlight the way some schools respond to the “skills gap” between what the American public education system produces and what the work force requires.

The Atlantic featured Camden County High School in St. Marys, Ga. It divides the student body into six academies: freshman; health and environmental science; engineering, architectural and industrial; business; fine arts; and government, public and human services.

The division of the school’s 2,800 students includes an embrace of technical learning with a strong emphasis on writing and real-world application of what students are being taught.

A sign in the hallway at school shows attendance, referral and dropout data for each academy.

The school’s arrangement is similar to the way that West Florida High School is designed. West Florida opened in 2001 and has the highest graduation rate of any school in Escambia County.

West Florida has earned an A on state standardized test grading scale for nine years.

In the 2012-2013 school year at West Florida, 91.62 percent of the white students and 89 percent of the black students graduated.

In Escambia County as a whole, those numbers are 71.17 percent for white students and 51.4 percent for black students. It is a gap that has persisted for at least 10 years in this county.

In the 2002-2003 school year, 73 percent of white students and 51 percent of black students graduated from Escambia County high schools, according to Florida Department of Education data.

Superintendent Malcolm Thomas has said that the high graduation rate at West Florida is attributable to the fact that it is a magnet school and that students must apply to be admitted. They are motivated, their parents are motivated and thus they perform better.

And that is true.

But let us not discount that the way the curriculum at West Florida engages students is special. Maybe the blend of technical education and core curriculum at West Florida is part of the reason for its success.

Maybe the question shouldn’t be what makes West Florida High — and Camden County High — different from other high schools.

The question should be why don’t more of our high schools look the way they do.

Because it seems in many ways that at West Florida High School, we get a better return on our investment.

And that return on the investment of our public education dollars is something that bears serious consideration, especially in light of recent reports by the Associated Press that put student loan debt in this country at $1 trillion.

University of West Florida students carry their share of that load. The average student loan debt at UWF has risen from $13,806 in 2008-2009 to $19,557 in 2012-2013.

The weight of paying back that money, often at the expense of saving for a down payment for a house or planning for retirement, is widening the wealth gap. That divide that the AP reported in December 2013 was hurting the economy, according to a majority of three dozen economists.

We tell students that college is the key to a better future. We make it sound like it is the only path worth taking.

And then we read about jobs that go unfilled in this country — jobs that pay a good wage — because the workforce lacks the technical knowledge, literacy and numeracy skills to fill them.

They aren’t jobs you need a political science degree to fill, but they are jobs you need training, specialized education and a strong math and language foundation to fill.

And they come with a paycheck.

Unless we adjust our idea of what kind of education is valuable, if we insist that the only college that counts is a liberal arts education, the graduates aren’t the only ones who won’t get a good return on investment.

We’re all throwing good money after bad.

Shannon Nickinson is the editor of in Pensacola. Follow her on Twitter @snickinson. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Shannon Nickinson


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