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Pilot Project Will Teach Work Habits : Education: An innovative program teaming high schools and business leaders targets teens who opt against college. Vital Link will focus on entry-level job skills.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to motivate students who are not college-bound to keep at their studies, a group of chief executive officers of businesses nationwide will join educators in Orange County in a pilot project aimed at paving a path to entry-level jobs for high school graduates.

The program is a joint venture of school districts in Orange County, Fort Worth, and Morris County, N.J., and the American Business Conference, an organization of 100 CEOs of mid-sized companies. It will home in on eighth- or ninth-graders likely to opt for jobs instead of college and help them develop better language, social and academic skills needed for entry-level work.

With business competition from foreign nations increasing, educators and business officials backing the project, dubbed the Vital Link, said the program is a crucial step toward educational reforms they hope will improve the skills of students about to enter an increasingly technical job market.

“Of all of the national issues, I think education--or our lack of quality education--is probably right at the top of the list of national priorities,” said Roger W. Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Western Digital Corp. and a leader of the project in Orange County.

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“If there’s one area of competition internationally that concerns me more than anything else it’s the poor quality (of worker) we’ve been turning out for the past couple of years,” said Johnson, who is also a vice chairman of the American Business Conference. “We can certainly do a lot of things relative to product quality, but if we don’t improve the quality of the work force coming out (of high school) we won’t be able to compete.”

The Huntington Beach Union, Irvine Unified and Laguna Beach Unified school districts will participate in the pilot program. Santa Ana Unified is working on a similar program called the Business Education Network, and American Business Conference officials hope to merge it with Vital Link.

About a dozen Orange County businesses have already signed up, along with several officials of local colleges and universities.

“The program is focused on developing linkages between businesses and education, focusing on motivating students and helping them understand how their academic opportunities relate to job opportunities,” said Kathleen T. Jones, an assistant vice chancellor at UC Irvine and chairwoman of the project. “That relationship is real clear if you’re college-bound, but it’s not as clear if you’re not sure that you’re going to go to college.”

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The fledgling program, officially launched in Washington in September, is still being formed. But Jones and other members of the Orange County steering committee have drafted a preliminary list of five goals:

* A commitment from business executives and employees to spend time with students, including serving as mentors and hosts for tours, and establishing internships and summer jobs with an eye toward possible permanent employment.

* Developing one-on-one relationships between students and representatives of the business community.

* Invitations from businesses to teachers for tours of companies, half-day and full-day professional development, and pairing teachers with industry representatives, including partnerships in classrooms.

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* Developing a detailed list of basic language and math skills businesses look for from entry-level employees, along with work habits such as punctuality, reliability, organization, “dressing for success” and interaction between people.

* Developing an indicator of a student’s strengths and weaknesses for review by employers. The idea of a portfolio including grades, extracurricular activities and other aspects of high school activity has fostered widespread interest among both businesses and schools. Some educators and businessmen are floating the notion that students who present portfolios or other indicators of high school achievement should start out at a higher pay scale.

The outline is a rough draft of the goals for the program, which will not officially start until some time next year. Several meetings between business executives and educators are scheduled for the coming months to hammer out a more concrete proposal.

Even after the program officially gets started, Jones said, it would be at least five years before its effectiveness could be determined since it will likely start with eighth-graders and track their progress through high school and into the work force. About 25 students per high school in each district are expected to participate initially, she said.

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Peggy Murray, vice president for communications at the American Business Conference, said business executives began expressing interest in closer relationships with schools after an April, 1989, conference concluded that the future work force may not be sufficiently prepared to be productive employees. Part of the blame, the executives concluded, lay with their own businesses, Murray said.

“Business has been very negligent on its own for setting standards and skill levels for entry-level employment,” Murray said.

Lawrence Kemper, superintendent of the Huntington Beach Union High School District, said that although Vital Link is still in the early planning stages, one of its main thrusts will be to get businesses to require more than just proof of graduation for entry-level work.

“People who hire people into entry-level positions never bother to check on (students’) records from school--they never ask about their GPA (grade-point average), they never ask for attendance records,” Kemper said. “If the kids knew that those factors were a consequence, we think they would get more serious about schools.”

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Johnson said that because few businesses require students to present grades or other proof of achievement, many companies are forced to spend valuable time teaching new employees basic academic and work skills.

“Most of our companies are having to provide remedial education in terms of the fundamentals of math or English,” Johnson said. “We also have to teach why it’s important to work, why it’s important to show up for work every day, all of those basic work values that we used to take for granted.”

Everyone involved in the project agrees that a major obstacle will be eliminating the stigma of participation in a program specifically for those who are not college-bound.

“There’s this great societal split that (says) college is the real answer,” Murray said. “It’s almost a black mark to say you’re preparing for employment instead of college, and that’s not really discussed.”

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Dennis M. Smith, superintendent of the Laguna Beach Unified district, said part of the challenge will be to eliminate the stigma students--and their parents--often feel when high schoolers decide against going to college. The first step, he said, will be to persuade prospective participants that entry-level work does not have to lead to dead-end jobs.

“What the CEOs are telling us is there are tremendous opportunities for advancement, that people can move up through the career track even without a college degree,” he said.

“In Germany, they have a very specific dual system--one for college, one for the work force,” Smith added. “There’s no stigma at all in developing students to go into the work force right after graduation. We want to begin to look at something like that. . . . We’d like to be able to develop a special diploma for these students that they can take out to prospective employers.”

Efforts in that direction are already under way in New Jersey, where student participants in the New Jersey Youth Employment Initiative program are issued a “Governor’s Passport to Employment” upon completion. The “passport” is issued for presentation to employers to high school graduates who pass a proficiency test, maintain at least a 92% daily attendance rate, demonstrate “good citizenship” and complete a 40-hour “employability skills” course.

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While the Vital Link and other school-business partnerships are still in their infancy, many educators and business leaders said they believe such partnerships will become an integral part of education as the cost of college rises and more students opt for immediate employment.

“In our (Huntington Beach) district, about 80% of the kids go on to some sort of college, but there are districts around us where that’s a dream,” Kemper said. “What are we going to do with all these kids who don’t go on to college? They can’t all flip hamburgers.”


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