Program aims to match students to jobs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 11, 1999

The girl touched her finger to the jelly-like tongue of a dental model and watched the tongue jiggle up and down. Little did she know, but she may have just taken her first step toward a career in dentistry.

Or maybe not.

The McLaurin sixth-grader was among some 100 students who toured the Richard Fallin Career & Technology Center Thursday as the first activity funded under a new community Schools to Career grant.

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And whether or not the sixth-grader, or any of her classmates, chooses dentistry as a profession is not as important as exposing the youngsters to that option — and many others, say grant administrators.

The Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority received the four-year grant from the Mississippi Department of Education. Funding for the first year is $140,000, and EDA officials said the bulk of those funds will go towards exposing Natchez school children to career options — at an early age.

&uot;Students need to know at an earlier age what their career options are,&uot; said Kaye Harris, assistant dean of vocational technical education for Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez, which is a partner in the grant.

&uot;There’s a lot of student who are untapped — who don’t got to universities or technical schools or work,&uot; she said.

Career choices

Mississippi Department of Education statistics show that of the 24,502 high school graduates in Mississippi in 1998, 30 percent indicated they would not go on to either a four-year or two-year college.

Of that 30 percent, only 11 percent indicated they intended to attend a technical or business school.

The reality is that many students in Adams County will not go on to higher education, said Cynthia Parker, who has been hired to administer the grant, said, and they must prepare to make a living.

&uot;We really want children to understand that they have career options,&uot; Parker said.

Laura A. Williams, a Career Center technician at Natchez High School, works with students to evaluate and choose a career.

&uot;Once students graduate, we aren’t able to track which students go on to college and which go to work,&uot; Williams said.

Regardless of which choice a student makes, Williams said, the student’s primary concern in the end is earning capability.

&uot;They usually say ‘I thought of a career, how much would I make?’&uot; Williams said.

But the information they need to make informed choices includes exposure to different career options and possibilities, and that is what the grant aims to do.

Life lessons

When Romeo Gonzalez, 12, toured the Fallin Center, the McLaurin sixth-grader with an interest in auto mechanics began to think ahead to his career.

&uot;It was cool,&uot; he said. &uot;I liked the computer that you can design cars on.&uot;

But more than just an exposure to some of the more technical aspects of the career field, Gonzalez and the other students got a bit of a life lesson from instructor Frank Dungan.

&uot;Every year, I have 135 applicants to this program and I can only take on 30 students,&uot; he said.

&uot;It’s just like the working world: An employer is going to look at your attitude, attendance and performance.&uot;

Dungan said he looks at students’ discipline reports first when considering which students to take in his class.

&uot;The school discipline report equates to attitude on the job,&uot; he said.

Dungan said school attendance equates to dependability on the job just as grades in school is telling for job performance later in life.

What students do now, Dungan told the children, indicates how successful they may eventually be in their chosen career.

Practical aspects

It’s that mix of exposure and real-life advice that employers say makes the grant program so appealing.

The Schools to Career grant will help tremendously in the recruitment of industry to the Natchez area, said Wally Kirk, president of the Natchez-Adams County EDA.

&uot;If you’re a major industry and you’re looking for a place to locate, there are certain things you’re going to look for,&uot; he said.

One of the top quality of life issues that any industrial search team will seek out is education, Kirk said.

&uot;They will look to see if the community is making progress in education,&uot; he said.

&uot;We’re very excited about it,&uot; Harris said of the program. As assistant dean of Co-Lin’s vocational-technical program, she has seen first-hand the importance of career training options.

Mississippi is fortunate to have a community college system to meet some of the educational needs of the state, she said.

&uot;You’ve got to have at least a two-year training program of some sort to get a job now,&uot; Harris said.

As one of only 23 communities in Mississippi to receive grants, Natchez stands to benefit from the program. In the following three years, the EDA&160;anticipates School to Career funding at the $80,000 – $90,000 per year level.

&uot;We’ll officially kick-off the program in January, but we’re beginning some activities in December since our funding came through the last week in November,&uot; said Winnie Kaiser, community development director for the EDA.

Parker said the grant application outlines an ambitious schedule of career-oriented curriculum and special activities for school aged children in Adams County.

Programs under the grant apply to grades K-12 in both public and private schools.