Photography by Erica Swallow
Top Photo: High school senior Lamarcus Fresh learns about hydraulic systems that are used in everything from cars and airplanes to construction machinery and barbershop chairs.
This is the first of two stories. The second story will appear Sunday morning.
Students can now get hands-on training that prepares them for careers or post-secondary education, while also receiving industry certifications that make the transition smoother. The program is the first and only manufacturing curriculum pilot in the state and also touts a unique approach to industry engagement and future plans for offering concurrent college credits.
“The biggest thing for me is that we help kids find their passion,” says North Little Rock School District (NLRSD) Deputy Superintendent Beth Stewart. “If we can help a student find their passion, we’re going to keep them. They will stay in school, and they’ll stay in the job they’re trained to do. If I know a kid wants to be an electrician, and I can teach him everything through electricity, he’s suddenly interested in what I’ve got to say.”
Engaging students starts with engaging industry, Ms. Stewart says. That’s why the school created an “Advanced Manufacturing Industry Review Board” to provide feedback on every aspect of the program and invited industry leaders to sit on it. Dassault Falcon Jet, electronics producer Molex and steel fabricator Lexicon all have a hand in the livelihood of NLRSD’s manufacturing program. John Miller, senior manager at Dassault Falcon Jet, is one of those. His work centers around training and education at the aerospace multinational.
“The idea here is to deliver graduates who are industry ready at some level,” Mr. Miller says. “It’s a fresh approach to the high school environment. As a board, we provide input. We reviewed the curriculum. We reviewed the resumés of the instructors. I feel very much engaged in that effort.”
Christie Toland, NLRSD director of College and Career Readiness, says the board was also asked to recommend course equipment and machinery options, as well as to review the district’s charter conversion application that will give greater flexibility to expand its career-oriented courses. They, too, helped draft the core competencies necessary for entry-level manufacturing positions, which informs the curriculum.
All of that industry engagement was made possible in large part by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. Kristi Barr, director of Business Retention and Expansion at the Chamber, collaborated with NLRSD to engage relevant manufacturing leaders. “For the Chamber, this started a few years ago,” Ms. Barr says. “We had an advanced manufacturing executive round table that met quarterly, and we started hearing repeatedly from them about the challenges they were having finding middle- to high-skilled labor sets. Their frustration finding qualified labor prompted us to get a small group of industry together to tackle, ‘If they could create a curriculum, what would it look like?'”
Preparing students for careers they want
It isn’t just industry that’s excited about the new manufacturing pilot in North Little Rock. Students are enthusiastic about the prospects, too. In fact, administrators originally planned for 50 students and one instructor, but attracted 195 and had to hire a second teacher.
Lamarcus Fresh, a senior at NLRHS, is enrolled in one of the school’s two pilot manufacturing courses, Introductory Craft Skills, which exposes students to a variety of construction-related and manufacturing career opportunities while helping them build work readiness skills and obtain entry-level industry certifications.
“My whole life revolves around building – cars, houses, anything,” Mr. Fresh says. As a kid, he worked on his own motorbike and helped family members with construction and auto-body work. “When I graduate, I want to go to school to get certified in auto mechanical engineering,” he says. “I work on cars now at Rock Collision [auto body shop] and want to open my own shop one day.”
“It’ll help me with what I’m going to school for, and it’ll help me get paid more from the start.” Skill certifications, in fact, are often tied to pay raises. For Mr. Fresh, it’s about connecting his interests to a career.
These safety and core skills certifications will enable students to continue education in more specific craft areas. The goal for NLRSD is to start students in these introductory classes as early as the eighth grade. “It’s a value-added high school diploma,” Ms. Stewart says.
Jacob West is one of the two high school manufacturing instructors at NLRHS. He has a background in contract construction and transportation work and previously taught engineering at the school. He envisions this program as an attractive offer for students who have dropped out to come back to school to earn a degree. “In four years, we can take a student and send them out of here with not only their NLRHS diploma, but also with a career,” he says. “To use CNC operating as an example, they can actually be a nationally certified CNC operator.”
The programs can be instrumental in teaching students valuable workplace information, such as manufacturing techniques and forklift safety.
Certification early in an education not only saves students time and money, but sets them up for higher education options after high school. Of course, the future of NLRHS’s certification programs depends on the rollout of the more advanced curriculum administrators have in mind, a process that Ms. Stewart and Ms. Toland have planned to the T.
Part Two of this story will appear Sunday morning.