By Audrey Schewe
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(CNN) -- Have you ever used what you learned in high school to get a job? Ask the graduates of Central Educational Center in Coweta County, Georgia, and you'll likely get a resounding "yes."
Mark Whitlock runs the CEC, a publicly funded charter school that opened in August of 2000. "Our mission is to ensure a viable 21st century workforce," Whitlock said.
Like all public schools, CEC must meet state standards and its students are required to take all state standardized tests. However, as a charter school, CEC has the flexibility to tailor its curriculum to meet the changing needs of the business community.
"CEC is about change in the workplace," says Whitlock. "In the 1960s and 70s, most jobs could be accessed with a general high school diploma or less. ...Today, most jobs require something beyond high school -- though not necessarily a four year degree -- and generally technical in nature."
Coweta County witnessed this change in the late 1990s, when the Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corporation, a long-time employer, considered relocating its expanded operations.
"Their message to our community was that we are not sure locally if we have the skilled workforce that we need," explains Whitlock.
In response to messages like this from various local employers, a study group comprised of county business, education and community leaders joined forces to address their individual yet interrelated needs.
The group's findings were consistent with national data, notes Whitlock. "Workers have less supervision, so more independence is required; businesses have more automation, so more technical skills are required, and we have a new global customer base, so workers need to relate to people across many different barriers."
In addition, business leaders wanted a higher level of work ethic -- a demand also not unique to Coweta County.
A recent National Association of Manufacturers study found that 69 percent of businesses cited "inadequate basic employability skills" such as attendance, timeliness and work ethic as the most common reason for rejecting job applicants.
A new model for vocational education
The study group's findings resulted in a new concept for high school education, realized in the opening of CEC in August of 2000.
"CEC is a joint venture among businesses, the Coweta County School System and West Central Technical College," explains Whitlock.
With CEC designed and operated on a business model, Whitlock is known as the CEO rather than the principal. CEC teachers are referred to as directors, and students are called team members.
Coweta high school students can spend part of their high school career at CEC, taking courses such as welding, graphic communications, electronics, computer networking and health occupations.
But unlike traditional vocational education programs, CEC integrates higher academic standards with higher levels of technical and career proficiency.
"The difference here," explains Whitlock, "is that we have high school age students taking classes with college curriculum, college instructors and college clinical rotations."
Students who dual-enroll with West Central Technical College can earn college credit and even receive credit toward significant portions of an associate's degree prior to high school graduation.
Another major difference between CEC and previous vocational programs is the emphasis on work-based learning.
Partnerships with nearly 200 local businesses provide CEC students with real-world experiences such as unpaid internships, job shadowing and apprenticeships.
VistaCare, one of the nation's leading hospice providers, is a CEC business partner. CEC students seeking certification as a Certified Nursing Assistant may shadow VistaCare's hospice registered nurses.
"The fact that we have the opportunity to get to know these potential employees before we hire them helps us to reduce employee turnover and helps to increase our patient satisfaction scores," said Vicki Kaiser, director of professional relations for VistaCare. "We are truly growing our own future workforce."
Jeannie Davis, an area manager for ResourceMFG, a company that specializes in placing skilled and semi-skilled workers in the manufacturing industry, stresses the charter school's emphasis on work ethic as a reason for the success of its students.
"Our customers complain that they have huge attendance and performance issues," says Davis. "At CEC, students receive a work ethic grade (in addition to a course grade) -- they are evaluated on attendance, ability to get along with others, how they work in a team and their willingness to participate."
CEC meets the needs of the local economy while also meeting the needs of its students.
As a high school junior, Mary King Tatum job-shadowed in hospitals and nursing homes as part of her health occupations courses at CEC. Senior year, she dual-enrolled in West Central Technical College. Prior to graduating from high school, she received her nursing assistant certification.
"A lot of my peers were smart kids who assumed that if you were going to CEC it was because you weren't that smart, or that you didn't want to go to a four-year college," says Tatum. "But by my senior year, they could see how the CEC classes were really relevant."
For honors student Toby Hughes, CEC provided an opportunity to get the practical training that he needed to enter the computer networking industry.
Hughes was hired by a computer networking company his senior year. "After I graduated from high school," says Hughes, "they put me on salary for $52,000 and promoted me to Operations Manager -- I was only 18 years old!"
A national model school
Proponents of the CEC model point not only to the immediate benefits to businesses and young people, but to the broader educational and economic impact of career technical education.
"We know from two research universities that 98 percent of young people who dual-enroll in a technical college program while in high school and who earn a technical college certificate will graduate from high school," stresses Whitlock. "Within 120 days, all of those young people who do graduate will have success in entering into the workforce or entering into additional post-secondary education. It's a virtual assurance of success."
Whitlock adds that since CEC opened in 2000, there has been a dramatic decline in the annualized dropout rate in Coweta County high schools. And, according to the research, he says that students who participate in career technical courses do better on Georgia High School graduation tests.
The school's role in enhancing the local economy has also been documented. Yamaha credited CEC with its decision to build its expansion in Coweta County -- which brought $40 million in new facilities and 300 new jobs to the community.
CEC was recently nominated and selected by a consortium including the International Center for Leadership in Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and others, as one of 30 replicable national model high school programs in the United States. And, Whitlock's team has received a grant from the state Department of Education to disseminate and replicate the CEC model throughout Georgia.
"We are beginning to hear the drumbeat for more career and technical education programs," says Whitlock. "Seven years ago, people wondered if this model would work. Today, the message we get now is that you guys aren't nearly big enough."
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