While Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White has been barnstorming the state to drum up support for Jump Start—which, if approved by the Legislature this spring, will revamp the way the state provides career and technical training to high school students who may not be interested in or ready for college—the Baton Rouge business community has quietly been doing its part to help get the program enacted and make sure it's a success.
In late January, a group of business leaders led by executives at Turner Industries and SSA Consultants formed the Louisiana Workforce Education Initiative: a nonprofit whose purpose is to raise money for marketing efforts to educate the state about the potential of Jump Start and its significance.
"This is a game changer," says Stephen Toups, Turner's vice president of business development, who co-founded the nonprofit and is helping raise money for it. "Imagine Louisiana turning out thousands of high school graduates who have jobs or solid career paths in front of them."
Jump Start is potentially one of the state's most important educational programs in a long time. That's because it overhauls the existing lackluster career diploma program, which is not reaching as many kids as it could and is therefore missing an opportunity to develop the skilled workforce Louisiana needs now and will, even more so, in the years to come.
Jump Start targets kids early in their high school careers, enabling them to take classes during the school day that will prepare them for technical careers once they graduate. Perhaps more importantly, it removes the disincentives currently built into the system that penalize schools that don't graduate a certain percentage of college- bound students.
Instead, it rewards schools for putting in place a career-training program that serves a variety of students and provides them with the kind of education that will help both them and the businesses around the state.
The Louisiana Workforce Education Initiative aims to support the program—first, by assuring that both the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Legislature approve Jump Start when it comes before them later this spring. After that, the group will help fund a media campaign designed not only to increase public awareness about the program but also to change attitudes about job-training programs and postsecondary education.
"There is still a stigma in Louisiana attached to programs and students who do not choose a path to a four-year college degree," says Christel Slaughter of SSA Consultants, which will be executing the campaign. "This will require a comprehensive communications effort involving grassroots outreach, mass media, social media and other nontraditional strategies."
In early February, Turner Industries Vice Chairman and President Thomas Turner signed his name to a solicitation letter that went out statewide to executives of large companies. The initial goal was to raise $75,000—money that will be used to do statewide polling later this month to assess attitudes. Eventually, Slaughter says the group hopes to raise more than $1 million to fund a mass marketing campaign that could begin rolling out in late summer.
The support of the private sector is critical to the success of the program, insists White, who is the architect of Jump Start. For their part, business leaders say the program is critical to the long-term future of the state. Says Toups: "This will open up careers and change futures for people growing up in Louisiana."
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