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Monday, July 8, 2013, 6:55 am

Nonprofit, schools plan workplace-learning program in Santa Rosa

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    SANTA ROSA — Santa Rosa City Schools is preparing to offer a new district-wide career readiness program this fall, partnering with the nonprofit Tomorrow’s Leaders Today to offer a 10-week course capped by a 40-hour internship with a regional employer.

    Tomorrow's Leaders TodayWith some additional funding earmarked by the Sonoma County Office of Education — the course will roll out with an inaugural two classes and be available by application to any junior or senior in the district.

    It is the latest effort to connect students with regional employers in Sonoma County, with a goal of fostering “soft skills” needed to function in the workplace and help strengthen the pathway connecting companies with a local talent pool.

    “It’s another example of a public-private partnership, bringing more organizations together to support work-based learning,” said Stephen Jackson, director of career development and workforce preparation at the Office of Education.

    The yet-to-be-named program is the second for Tomorrow’s Leaders Today, after a leadership course offered for more than two decades to high school juniors in Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Windsor and Petaluma.

    Students will receive academic credit for completing the entire course, which has two distinct phases. In the first eight-week portion, instructors will focus on work skills like collaboration, communication and organization. The second two-week phase will involve the internship.

    By scheduling the internship portion after the soft-skills course, students are expected to be prepared for the workplace environment, said Katie Barr, executive director of Tomorrow’s Leaders Today. Even for college and high school graduates, those skills are often lacking, she said.

    “We’re focused so heavily on the academia part of it, we don’t focus on the soft skills,” Ms. Barr said.

    Sonoma County Schools currently offers a number of career technical education programs, with three-course “pathways” in areas like agriculture, construction and a recently revamped Geospacial Technology Pathway at Piner High School. The soft skills focus of the new course could help to compliment those other programs, said Debi Batini, director of career pathways and community outreach for the district.

    “What’s unique about this course is that it is really focused on work-based learning, while the pathways focus on the whole industry,” she said.

    Leaders in the program are currently lining up industry partners to serve as hosts for internships, with the Sonoma County Alliance looking within its own membership for participants, Ms. Barr said.

    While a number of companies in the North Bay business community have shown a proclivity towards education initiatives, connecting with those companies can be a challenge for the limited resources of school districts, Mr. Jackson said. The new course will include a business liaison to help develop those connections, along with an instructor.

    “Teachers, quite frankly, don’t usually have the time to meet with organizations, set up workplace learning and job shadows,” he said. The county office itself is considering staff that would be dedicated to that role, he said.

    The Tomorrow’s Leaders Today approach takes cues from the School to Career summer work-based learning course offered by the Marin County Office of Education, which has grown to involve more than 200 partner businesses and more than 2,000 students per year, Ms. Barr said.

    While the Sonoma County program will be smaller at its onset, Ms. Barr said that the program is expected to grow over time and could incorporate more than 200 students per year by the end of its current three-year funding window. It could grow further and extend across the county over time, as school districts incorporate the course into their own programs.

    “Our goal is to pilot this and track it,” she said.

    The majority of that early growth is expected to be incubated within Santa Rosa City Schools, though Healdsburg High School has plans to augment its existing work-based learning programs with the soft skills education component from Tomorrow’s Leaders Today this fall, Ms. Barr said.

    Students will be expected to assemble a portfolio of their work, something that could serve as an asset for employment or college application, she said. The nonprofit is currently in talks with the University of California system to have the course be eligible as a so-called “a-g” prerequisite for enrollment.

    In general, career technical education and work-based learning has been a topic of increased focus both in the North Bay and nationally. The administration of President Barack Obama has proposed making that education a stronger federal mandate, echoing talks on the state and regional level, Mr. Jackson said.

    “With the education and training that is required in our information economy, the gap is closing between what it means to be college ready and what it means to be career ready,” he said.

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