In the past 10 years, the education trend has been to focus on getting students into four-year colleges, but a new local initiative aims to help students understand they have options that don’t fit into what’s been established over the past decade.

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“This is [an effort] to open doors to multiple pathways,” Chattanooga 2.0 Executive Director Jared Bigham said of the recently announced Future Ready Institutes.

Chattanooga leaders from public, private and nonprofit sectors recently announced the collaboration that’s directed at better preparing students for life after high school graduation. The new Future Ready Institutes initiative creates “schools within a school” that have career themes and connect classroom lessons to practical workforce skills.

Some details, such as transportation, are still being worked out, but leaders have established institutes this fall in 11 Hamilton County high schools.

Future Ready is meant to challenge the traditional approach to high school education by developing “career-themed small learning communities.”

Themes for the institutes include medicine, robotics, forensic science, engineering, hospitality and technology.

“We are horrible in education in that we swing the pendulum one way or the other,” Bigham said about the shifts between focusing on trade skills or four-year universities. “For nearly a decade across the country and in Tennessee, the pendulum really went to the four-year track. We saw the results of that across the labor that those talent pipelines in skilled labor jobs diminished.”

Future Ready is about giving students access to career pathways by engaging them in real-life scenarios, allowing them to work with local professionals and tying it all back into the school’s curriculum.

Hamilton County Schools superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson said students won’t have to wonder how what they are learning in school will matter in the future.

“Students will be able to visualize better how their classroom lessons relate to their career goals,” he said via email.  “Teachers in content subject areas will work with the career teachers to tailor lesson content the skills students are gaining in career classes.”

Dual enrollment opportunities will also be a vital part of Future Ready Institutes, and Johnson said he part of the goal is to see more students completing high school with college experience, industry credentials and a background that will help them better contribute to the community.

Problem-based learning
One of the most striking components of the new initiative is the focus on problem-based learning, Bigham said.

With problem-based learning, students acquire knowledge and skills through a sequence of contextual problems and the experience they gain is combined with teacher instruction and other traditional learning materials.

The idea is to foster critical thinking skills and create lifelong learners.

“Students will be working on real-world problems,” Bigham said. “To me, that’s one of the more interesting components.”

Businesses, such as Unum, Erlanger and JP Morgan & Chase Co., have partnered for the Future Ready Institutes, and students will get a chance to help find solutions to challenges the companies face, he said.

For example, they might tackle the hurdle of how to best serve people who only speak Spanish and come into the emergency room.

Students will work on problems and present their ideas to industry leaders, who will also provide support and feedback.

The experience is meant to be immersive.

“[This asks] students to think critically and apply knowledge in a real-world way,” Bigham said. “The student is going to have the opportunity to be a part of a real-world solution plus they are going to get the benefit of consulting with actual experts.”

And it has the potential to engage students more because they will know they can have an actual impact on their community. It’s not just a grade, it’s recognition that their ideas matter and can make a difference, he said.

“It’s very empowering when they can see the manifestation of the work they’ve been doing,” he said.

The hands-on, real-world work will be combined with more traditional instruction that complements what students are doing in the institutes.

Each cohort selected for the institutes will have teachers in English, math, science and social studies, as well as a career and technical teacher. The teachers will tailor their lessons to the work being done in the institutes, Bigham said.

For example, for the health institute, an English teacher might have students analyze medical journals.

The business participants
Buy-in from area businesses is important for the initiative and the school system is still looking to bring on more partner companies.

Organizers worked to make sure the institutes are beneficial to the industry partners, not only the students, Bigham said.

“It strengthens the local talent pipeline…it’s a two-way partnership,” he said. “There’s an actual return on investment for these companies.”

Erlanger will be providing a full-time instructor, who is a registered nurse with a background in clinical education, for on-site training at the hospital’s simulation lab, where students will get hands-on experience, Chief Nursing Executive of Erlanger Jan Keys said in a prepared statement. 

“We will be providing a teamwork environment that will help develop communication skills, as well as experiences that will encourage high school students to learn and attend school each day,” she also said. “Erlanger is committed to making this more than a “job shadowing” experience by providing training in our simulation lab, using experts in various fields.”

Erlanger will also provide the professional experience to ensure that the curriculum matches what is needed by graduates as they seek certification and enter the medical job market, Johnson said.

Unum is supporting the program by hosting and funding externship experiences for Hamilton County schoolteachers, which Johnson called a “major investment.”

The externships, which will be hosted by other local businesses, are designed to train and prepare teachers to lead the Future Ready Institutes curricula by aligning with workforce development needs, Unum Community Relations specialist Miles Huff said in a prepared statement. 

Initial training for teachers selected to the program will be provided by Unum this summer and the company will continue to support the teacher preparation for three years, Johnson said.

Unum is also investing $300,000 to support the development and success of Future Ready Institutes and is providing guidance on the overall planning and program rollout, as well as providing promotional support to key audiences, such as teachers, students and parents. 

JP Morgan & Chase was an early adopter and a grant from the company funded the hiring of an administrator to get the program going, Johnson said.

The third partner at this point is JPMorgan Chase.  The company was an early adopter of the program and a grant from the company funded hiring an administrator to get the program off the ground and make Future Ready Institutes a reality.

“The positive for the employer is that they can grow a source for future employees and they are part of cultivating a successful community for all of us to prosper,” Johnson said. “We encourage any business or industry that sees a match with one of our programs to contact us and become a part of Future Ready Institutes.”

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