The end of ‘college or career.’ How JCPS is reinventing school

Southern High School senior Tritt Love-Holland, 17, swings a hammer at local machine shop Scheu & Kniss. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Southern High School senior Tritt Love-Holland stood in a Louisville industrial machine shop, removed a fist-sized metal part from a milling machine and then measured to make sure the component met specifications of the customer, the Wonka Candy Co.

It was a typical Monday for Love-Holland, 17, who takes classes in the school in the mornings and works at Elizabeth Scheu & Kniss four hours every weekday afternoon, earning $11 an hour.

The company plans to hire him after graduation in spring as an apprentice machinist, at which point he’ll get a raise. He’ll get another raise next fall when the company sends him to take classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College, on the company’s dime. And as long as he continues to take classes, he’ll get a raise every six months.

Four years after graduation, he’d be a journeyman machinist, with an hourly wage of about $24.

The plan is for Love-Holland, at age 22, to have an associate degree, nationally recognized professional license, no debt, a job in an in-demand career and annual earnings, including overtime, of about $65,000.

The teenager is getting the opportunity through Jefferson County Public Schools’ new Academies of Louisville model, which introduces students to in-demand careers early in high school and allows an increasing number of them to gain work experience with local employers, from machine shops to IT businesses and hospitals.

JCPS officials hope that once its Academies model matures in 2021, all of the students at 16 of 21 high schools will, by the time they enter their sophomore year, have a clear path toward a marketable career.

To support the initiative, JCPS has spent $6.2 million to purchase equipment, upgrade infrastructure, to train teachers and to create positions, including 14 academy coaches.

Mary Gwen Wheeler

“This is reinventing high school,” said Mary Gwen Wheeler, a former state board of education member who helps advise the district on the effort. Wheeler also serves as executive director of 55,000 Degrees, a public-private partnership that aims to increase the number of Louisvillians with bachelor’s and associate degrees.

The Academies address some challenges that have plagued education for years, she said, including that students frequently disengage because they believe that what they learn is not relevant for life after school.

The district’s new approach aims to make all graduates employable, equipped with skills for the job market of the future.

“It’s a big vision,” Wheeler said.

Interests align with needs of employers

The school district’s interests are aligning with the needs of local employers, who are facing a tight labor market and a retirement wave of highly qualified baby boomers that is restricting revenue. Louisville businesses have supported the Academies with more than $250,000 in donated equipment and supplies and additional investments in time and talent to provide input and create opportunities for students.

Jason Sellers, the CNC department manager at Scheu & Kniss, said machine shops all across the country have to dig deep into their pockets if they want to hire experienced employees.

“Everybody’s dealing with the same things right now,” he said.

Sellers said that if he wants to hire a journeyman machinist to replace a retiree, he’ll have to offer wages of $30 per hour to even get him in the door.

The retirement wave is going to continue, he said, and employers are stepping up and getting involved to make sure that the pipeline of young talent widens. The state told Scheu & Kniss officials about the program at Southern, and the company reached out to school leaders.

“We weren’t sure what we were going to get into,” he said.

Jason Sellers, the CNC department manager at Scheu & Kniss, holds schematics for a component of a rotary tablet press, while Southern High School senior Tritt Love-Holland operates a mill. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

The work can prove challenging. Schneu & Kniss makes parts for rotary tablet presses, which produce anything from prescription drugs to shirt buttons and battery cores. Some of the parts Love-Holland has to measure have tolerances of 0.002 inches.

The teen said he considered taking a traditional college route, but could not really find a major that interested him all that much, especially given rising tuition cost.

“I didn’t want to be in college debt,” he said.

He initially wanted to join Southern’s automotive academy and ended up in machining essentially by accident. After he talked to teachers, saw the career opportunities and worked the machines, he decided to stick with it.

Love-Holland enjoys the work at the machine shop because he said it feels like a class — but not like English class. Plus, he said with a grin, he gets to leave school early.

The money helps, too. He’s saving most of his earnings for a car. Beyond the 20 hours a week he puts in at Scheu & Kniss, he works two 12-hour weekend shifts at Cardinal Aluminum. He drives a 2000 Chevrolet Cavalier that recently got damaged and needs to be replaced. His insurance company said repairing the damage would cost more than the car is worth.

Outside of school and work he mostly sleeps, he says, as he gets up every morning at 3:30 to hit the gym before school. In the evenings he washes dishes, to pay for gas, he said.

He hopes to soon buy a Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado or perhaps a Dodge Charter. He’d like to buy a Ford Mustang, but, he said, but the insurance would cost too much.

Last year, Scheu & Kniss, which employs about 45, offered four co-cop spots to Southern High School students. One left within a week, saying the work was not for him. Of the three remaining students, the company hired one full-time and one part-time. The part-timer stayed for a couple of months, then pursued another job, but returned when Scheu & Kniss posted a full-time job.

Company officials have provided feedback to the district about the kinds of skills they expect incoming workers to have. Sellers said Southern has a good program and the students this year are doing well.

The experienced workers don’t mind teaching the young students, he said, but the youngsters have to be willing to learn.

“Tritt has a very good work ethic,” Sellers said. “He is here every day, on time and ready to go.”

Company leaders hope to hire six to 10 young workers out of the co-cop program in the next five years.

Competition among employers already is heating up. Sellers said the teen recently came to work at Scheu & Kniss and said he had gotten a raise from Cardinal. Sellers said he asked him, “Good for you, but are they going to pay your tuition?”

Matthew Haynes, a computerized manufacturing and machining teacher at Southern, said the experienced students in the machining program are in high demand.

“We often will have more jobs lined up than we have kids,” he said.

Rigorous and relevant instruction

Matthew Haynes

Haynes recently stood in the school’s machine shop, near mills and lathes, surrounded by students as he explained how to check whether a metal bar met the desired specifications. It’s a skill that students need to master to obtain a certification, which showcases their skills to prospective employers.

Southern has three academies — automotive, business (for financial services, hospitality and recreation) and Manufacturing, Engineering, Technology and Leadership, (or METaL) — and 50 of the 120 kids in the METaL academy already have nationally recognized certifications through the National Institute of Metalworking.

Some students will obtain their second certification in February.

Last May, Southern held a ceremony in the schools’ gymnasium to award that year’s class with 67 certifications. The quasi graduation involved parents but also functioned as a job fair, with industry partners collecting resumes and interviewing some of the graduates. Southern had spent weeks on improving students’ resumes and interviewing skills.

Haynes said the ceremony was the first of its kind, in part because the school in previous years generally offered no more than a handful of certifications, not enough to warrant a big event.

Students in the same academy take math, English and other classes together, and teachers who are part of the academies make sure that their lessons remain relevant to the kids.

For example, Haynes said, history teachers in the METaL academy may discuss how advanced manufacturing has changed.

Christy Rogers

Christy Rogers, who oversees the district’s Academies initiative as superintendent of transition readiness, said the district has come to realize that it needs to transform public education to make sure that the students and their communities can thrive. The new approach was inspired by Ford Next Generation Learning and builds upon experiences the district has had with programs at Jeffersontown and Doss High schools, where Superintendent Marty Pollio served as principal.

College and career awareness should start with elementary students, Rogers said, and continue through career exploration for middle school students and career preparation for high schoolers.

“We want to prepare them and actually get to work early,” Rogers said.

The district is emphasizing college and career — not college or career — but it is moving away from pushing everyone to go to college.

“I think we had a very narrow definition of college,” Rogers said.

Too many kids have been graduating from college with a degree, a lot of debt, but no plan, she said.

Haynes, the machining teacher, agrees. He said he often asks high school seniors what they are going to do after graduation, and a lot of them answer that they plan to go to college. However, when he asks why, the students often answer, “Because I’m supposed to.” And when he asks what they plan to study, they often say, “I don’t know.”

“That’s not a good situation,” Haynes said.

Rogers said that through its Academies model, JCPS wants to make sure that students are aware of their options. Some careers may require a four-year degree. For others, an associate or an apprenticeship may suffice — even though some of those students eventually may want more schooling: A nursing student may decide to become a doctor, or a journeyman machinist could pursue an engineering degree.

Love-Holland said his parents told him to make sure that he chooses a career in which he enjoys the work. His father, Terry Holland, works in a factory. His mother, Rain, works at Humana. Neither attended college. When he told them about machining, they were on board, he said, especially after learning that his employer would pay for post-secondary education.

The teen has three siblings and, he emphasized, a turtle, named after the Mario Bros. villain Bowser.

Sellers, of Scheu & Kniss, said that when he interviews students for the co-op spots in the machine shop, he does not want to hear them say that they want to work because they don’t like school.

He said he tells them, “You’re going back to school, because we’re going to make you.”

The district’s industry partners, including GE Appliances, Ford, Yum, UPS, Brown-Forman and others, are working with schools to expose kids to careers. UPS just installed a conveyor system at Valley High School. GEA is helping Doss prepare maintenance mechanics. JCPS also is working with the local chamber of commerce, Greater Louisville Inc., and the region’s workforce development board, KentuckianaWorks, to identify in-demand careers and opportunities for anything from field trips to internships.

“It’s going faster than I can even keep up with,” Rogers said.

Some of the district’s pathways are available only at one school — aviation at Shawnee, automotive at Southern — but for others, students have more options. Nursing, for example, is available at 11 schools.

Haynes said that while some students in the METaL academy may end up in careers that have nothing to do with machining, many of the skills they learn, such as measuring, will help them in other jobs or hobbies. Haynes knows this first-hand. He makes farmhouse furniture in his spare time and sells it on Facebook.

Wheeler, of 55,000 Degrees, said that the district’s new approach makes sense because most current and future jobs will require education beyond high school.

“This idea that it’s college or career … ,” she said, “we must start blurring those lines.

“I do not think that pushing career is not pushing college,” Wheeler said. “It’s understanding that we’re shifting to an innovation and knowledge economy.”

Mary Gwen Wheeler is a major donor to the nonprofit Insider Media Group.