The Pryor Times

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March 18, 2014

Educators, MAIP work on education toward employment

PRYOR, OK — Three education advocates talked education issues at Pryor Area Chamber of Commerce’s monthly forum.

The  luncheon was hosted John Hawkins, David Stewart, Stephen Crawford, and Don Raleigh.

The men discussed current education issues, namely funding.

“Education is extremely important to us,” said David Stewart MidAmerica Industrial Park Chief Administrator. “It became immediately clear to me that a job ready workforce is the key to attract new business in the park.”

Stewart talked about the $30 million the park has invested into expanding to attract new businesses. In addition, MAIP invested $10 million into creating a state-of-the-art career center.

“These are the kinds of numbers we're investing in this issue, it shows our commitment,” said Stewart. “This could change the landscape of the community.”

Stewart said there are key concepts in growing the park and providing a pathway for students to obtain jobs in MAIP.

“First, how do we sell it? Eighteen-year-olds don't always know what a career looks like, so we have to package it in a unique way. Second is all about the delivery, is it affordable, is it accessible?” said Stewart.

The third concept, he said, is training and educating on the right topics. Stewart said it's about a melding of curriculum and life skills. Those orchestrating this partnership will seek the opinion of businesses to see what curriculum they need schools include.

“This is as simple as how to get a loan, how banks work, the truth about credit cards, etc. Then school superintendents will be involved on how to integrate this into their curriculum,” said Stewart.

The last concept, Stewart said, is community. To that end, he said MAIP has created an advisory committee that meets monthly to discuss the needs and progress of this project.

Stewart said MAIP's mission is simple: To provide a pipeline of work-ready employees to satisfy the employment needs of current and prospective MAIP businesses.

In the business realm, Stewart said Google, American Casting, Orchids and Sygma are key participants in the project.

High schools welcoming this partnership are Pryor, Locust Grove, Chouteau and Salina, along with Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, Rogers State University and Northeastern Technology Center.

The high schools in particular, Stewart said, will take students on tours of the businesses involved, giving them real-world ideas of what careers in the park can look like.

Stewart closed by saying if everyone present rallied around an initiative, politicians would have to listen.

Stephen Crawford, Executive Director Cooperative Council of Oklahoma School Administrators, began by saying education needs to be at the table when it comes to legislative conversations.

“Oklahoma has made the largest cuts to school funding in the nation,” said Crawford. “Of all the other states, we are the worst in regard to funding our education system.”

Crawford pointed out that Oklahoma schools have not recovered pre-recession funding levels and that funding is not keeping up with enrollment.

“We are at least $200 million behind. Schools have less money behind each kid than even last year,” said Crawford, quoting Oklahoma Policy Institute statistics.

“Oklahoma has 1,500 fewer classroom teachers and 40,000 more students since 2008-2009. They're either operating with less teachers and stacking classes or they are spending their savings,” said Crawford.

Crawford said schools have been asked to do huge reforms, with less revenue. He said in his 28 years in public education, he's never seen a situation like the one educators are facing today.

Pryor Public School Superintendent Don Raleigh extended his thanks on behalf of the educators “in the trenches.”

“We're all here because of the kids. I'd hate to keep doing bake sales to keep money coming in,” said Raleigh, adding that the district is fortunate not to have been forced to do lay-offs yet.

“Our fund balance is taking a $400,000 to $500,000 cut in the next year. We've been able to hold off making huge cuts and lay-offs, but we can't do it much longer.”

Raleigh said everyone present was coming from a different viewpoint: parents, educators, legislators and business professionals.

“But we are all in the opportunity business. This is an investment, this is workforce and economic development, and that's something we can all get behind,” said Raleigh.

In response to a question from the audience, Raleigh said students should not have to choose solely between higher education and entering the workforce.

“Students deserve to be given the whole map, rather than just a fork in the road,” said Raleigh.

Raleigh said Oklahoma is a reactive state, when it needs to be proactive.

“It's not just money, we need opportunity, a new way of doing things. We have had state aid cuts each of my six years here. We may go off a financial cliff,” said Raleigh, adding that lay-offs increase the workload of teachers left behind.

“All we want,” Raleigh said, “is to be at pre-recession funding.”

An example, Raleigh said, is that the district has 2,650 students and one school nurse.

“I'm tired of politicians driving what we do in education, I want a seat at that table,” said Raleigh. “Personally and professionally, I need your help.”


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