In “Local Harvest: Developing the Central Valley Workforce for California’s Future Agriculture,” the Milken Institute’s research depicts a future where agriculture (Kern’s largest employer) will face technological innovation and our employees will become increasingly unprepared and unable to fill available jobs. Effectively, the existing skills gap will continue to grow at a more rapid pace in the years to come. In her State of the County Address, Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez poignantly stated, “When our workforce doesn’t have enough skilled people, we can’t attract industries that provide the better-paying jobs that fuel economicgrowth. And as the backbone industries that built Kern County evolve, they, too, need people with high-tech skills.”
But Kern County’s problem isn’t just with being tech savvy; our children are moving into adulthood without adequate English, math and reading skills. Despite the county’s philosophy of being business friendly, Kern County offersprospective employers the opportunity to recruit from one of the least-educated workforces in the state — where we expel more students in raw numbers than Los Angeles Unified School District. According to school records, of all incoming students in Fall 2013 at Bakersfield College, completing assessment, 81 percent needed remediation in math, English or reading. In addition, only 14 percent of Kern’s population has attained a college degree.
So if we understand that businesses rely on a quality workforce — and that quality workforce comes from our educational systems — why are our schools sending (expelling) children home? Why would a business want to come here to hire employees that have been expelled from school at alarming rates? Luckily, all is not lost. There are those in our local K-12 system working hard to change a pattern by which we remove kids from school for discretionary offenses, only to encourage them into a life of crime and create a lifelong burden on taxpayer dollars later.
Dr. Matthew Ross is the superintendent of Vineland School District. As a former principal in Lancaster, Dr. Ross led a school that, prior to his arrival, had more suspension incidents than students enrolled and had expelled almost a third of that number.
Dr. Ross recognized that expulsions and suspensions impacted the economic and educational bottom line. If a child isn’t in his or her seat, the school district doesn’t get a dime that day from the state. A conservative estimate is that one school could lose $100,000 or more annually because of suspended/expelled students. Those are real dollars that could have been used to improve technology in a school library, pay for a literacy coach or support a school counselor.
As principal, Dr. Ross recognized the need for change. “To use a sports analogy, when my favorite team isn’t doing well, we don’t get rid of the entire team. We focus on the capacity of the coach and management because we know we need a different approach.” In many cases, the suspension serves no valuable purpose from a developmental or academic aspect. Disciplinary actions involving suspensions send a message to parents that school attendance has no value, causing children who need to be in school the most to fall further behind. This provides nothing in the way of real tools to change behavior and represents a loss of revenue to the school — in addition to the future costs to taxpayers.
Though a daunting task, Dr. Ross changed the culture of his school, asking his teachers to think more thoughtfully and purposefully before requesting suspensions. He integrated diverse student behavior management frameworks like Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) to help shift the focus on school discipline from punishment-based reactions to teaching compliance and behavioral expectations, following up with rewards for positive behavior. Dr. Ross indicates, “Now they only used suspensions to allow a teacher to continue to teach, provide for safety, or to help students cool off.” While Dr. Ross dropped suspensions from a high of 1,035 to below 300, the API score of the school rose dramatically from a low of 574 to a high of 693, a 21 percent increase. These changes represent savings to the school budget, improved learning and a reduction in taxpayer-funded social services later. And at Vineland, he has been able to make similar changes in less than a year under his leadership.
Supportive school board members, principals and teachers have also helped pave the way. The results: fewer suspensions, increased student learning and larger school revenues. To prepare our children for the workforce needs of tomorrow, let’s keep our students in school today.
Michael Turnipseed is the executive director of KernTax.