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Forging New Frontiers in Education: A Business Model For Education

Rhema Thompson

It’s not your granddad’s classroom. And it probably isn’t the kind of classroom you grew up in either.In a leaner, meaner job market where competition spans well beyond international borders, education is spanning well beyond the classroom walls of our forefathers.

This bi-weekly series looks at how Duval County is working to prepare the next generation for what's ahead by forging new frontiers in education.

A Business Model for Education

Among the buzzing lunchtime crowd, bank teller Aeneebaba Gebretsadik counts out money for a customer.

“Here’s 10,11, 12, 13, 14, 15,” she tells the man at the counter after handing him a receipt.

Nearby, her colleague Tatyana Albert sits at a desk donning a shiny name plate. She’s waiting to help customers open accounts at the VyStar Credit Union branch.  

It’s the typical scene you’d expect to see at a bank this time of day, except Aeneebaba is a high school sophomore and Tatyana is a junior; and the bank branch is part of their course load.

The same goes for about a dozen other students in Wolfson High School’s Academy of Finance.

“Most people start at like McDonald's, so to start at VyStar is like a step up, like an actual credit union, I feel like that’s a step up from others,” Tatyana said.

This is her second year working at the student-run branch, which serves the school's students and staff.

Wolfson junior Jayla Allen will have three years of banking experience come graduation next year.

“I’ll have three years under my belt as a teller and a (Members Service Representative) so I’ll have a lot more experience than the average teenager,” she said.

It’s more of that kind of experience that teenagers will need for the global job market that awaits them, according to academic and economic experts.  

“The reality is that there is a massive increase in the labor supply throughout the world that simply wasn’t there before, resulting from the changing nature of the world market,” said University of North Florida economics professor Paul Mason.

By some estimates, that increase translates into about 1.2 billion more workers than a decade ago, Mason said. With such an influx of labor, a degree without experience no longer cuts it.

“You’re competing with a large number of not just graduates, but also a significant number of people who lost their jobs and are trying to find new jobs, who have more experience than you do,” he said. “So a degree to which you can have training in the field that businesses want and through internships and other programs can say that you have experience doing X, that’s going to enhance the fact that you look good in the eyes of an employer."

Local educators are taking note. In recent years, Duval County Public Schools has formed an ever- increasing number of partnerships between schools and businesses, including VyStar. They are now more than 100 of such partnerships in the district, according to school officials.

Wolfson High School was the first school in Duval County to form a partnership with VyStar back in 2011. That expanded to Ribault High in 2012.

Diedre Pinkney directs the finance academy at Wolfson, which offers students paid internships as well as industry certification in Microsoft Office suite. About 70 percent of the academy’s total 120 students get some form of real-world work experience, she said.

“The whole premise behind this was to give the kids an opportunity to actually work and be in an environment that would be identical to what it would be in the actual workplace,” she said.

That’s the same premise behind other more recent partnership programs sprouting up in the district.

Last month, career academies at six schools—Ed White, Raines, Ribault, First Coast, Lee and Mandarin high schools—partnered with the JAX Chamber to begin a semester-long food truck project.  

The students will spend the next few months creating a business model fit for a big-time investor, said Tina Wirth, senior director of workforce development with the Chamber.

“They are going to then deliver to members of the business community in May, sort of like a real-life shark tank, in hopes of securing funding for a food truck and some commercial storage space,” she said.

And next year, lens-manufacturer Vistakon—a long-time partner of Englewood High School—will launch a new program with the school’s Advanced Manufacturing Academy.

Vistakon has provided mentors and shadowing opportunities to the school since 2009, but next fall, the company is collaborating with the school for a new four-year program that will provide about 25 students with paid internships, an associate’s degree and industry certification.

“[It’s] a fairly new concept because it includes the dual-enrollment classes, those acceleration courses, that rigorous course work along with some industry certification courses leading towards a high-paying job in the field of advanced manufacturing,” Wright said.

Wright said starting salaries at the company can range from $60,000 to $90,000 a year.

In general, it’s the companies such as Vistakon and VyStar that foot the bills associated with the programs, according to the district’s Chief of Accountability and Assessment Andrew Post.

However, the district's recent partnership with JAX Chamber is the exception and district will pay $90,000 out of a Perkins grant to fund the program, Post said.

For businesses like Vistakon and VyStar, there is something in it for them: freshly trained and specially skilled young workers right in their very own backyard.

“It’s the opportunity to train their future workforce and a huge pipeline of new talent,” said Trey Csar, director of Jacksonville Public Education Fund.  “And for the students, they get to learn very tangible skills with a real market value and then to apply those both in the school as well as in the community.”

Wolfson 11th-grader Tatyana plans to apply the skills she’s acquired to her future.

She wants to study international business at the University of North Florida. The past two years have given her a leg up, she said.

“This is a real job,” she said. “We do real things. I mean, I feel prepared.”

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.