Ideas in Action: Rural Georgia Charter School Links Students with Career Pathways

Tuesday, May 1, 2018 | Safal Partners

Key Takeaway: Introducing rural high school students to careers while in school decreases the need for them to go to larger cities to access college and career opportunities, while local business partners can expand experiences a program can offer.

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Putnam County Charter School System

Location: City of Eatonton/Putnam County, Georgia
Enrollment: 2,900 students
Grades Served: Pre-K - 12
Students Receiving Free or Reduced-Priced Lunch: 80%
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“Our biggest goal is to offer as many opportunities to our students utilizing the resources and partnerships we have.”

Putnam County Charter School System in Georgia is already reaching that goal with continued enthusiasm and efforts behind their “Youth Empowered for Success” or “YES” Program, which is now in its fourth year. The program encourages local business partners to provide avenues for high school students to explore college and career opportunities in the healthcare, information technology (IT), and welding industries.

Putnam County Schools is a rural school district located southeast of Atlanta. It faces many of the challenges rural school districts experience, including not being connected to a larger suburb, lack of industry, and a lack of public transportation.

“Since we’re about an hour and a half from Atlanta and Augusta, it’s hard to find meaningful opportunities to expose students to the world of work,” said Katherine Reid, the YES Program manager.

That’s when Reid says they had an epiphany.

“We thought, surely there is something our students can help with at our local businesses while they are here in school,” she said.

Through that realization of potential within their own students and faculty, Putnam County Schools applied for the Youth Career Connect Grant through the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor. In 2014, they were awarded a $2.4 million grant over 4.5 years, becoming one of 24 grant recipients across the nation and one of the only recipients in their area. The YES Program took off in the 2014-2015 school year.

“Since then, we’ve been able to enhance, promote, and market the needs of the programs we started,” said Reid.

The YES Program allows students to earn certificates in welding, healthcare, IT, and other fields as well as take advantage of dual-enrollment. Through dual-enrollment, some students are able to earn an Associate Degree while still in high school. The dual-enrollment classes are taught during the regular school day through online learning at Georgia College & State University and Georgia Military College, or students can attend courses at their high school campus. Instructors from Central Georgia Technical College come to the Putnam County High School Campus to teach courses.

“Because of the obstacles we face in our rural community, we have found ways for our students to apply the skills they learn in the classroom through project-based learning,” said Reid.

Businesses can approach the school with work opportunities related to the different programs. Students can do this career training while they are at school. Some students have even earned stipends for doing this type of work, which can range from graphic design to welding repair work.

Because the students remain on the high school campus for their work-based learning, “Businesses are getting work accomplished without the liability and age limitations, and students aren’t having to go out of their way to do the work,” said Reid.

Since there are very limited transportation options to get students from the high school campus to business, bringing the opportunities to the campus has opened up new possibilities.

In addition, the dual-enrollment courses are tuition-free for students. That can make a difference for a school district where 80 percent of the students receive free- or reduced-price lunch.

“Parents understand the dollars and cents in tuition saved because these courses are at no cost to their student,” said Reid. “It didn’t really take long for this program to catch on.”

But what’s driven the success of the program is the students who’ve embraced it. The program has increased enrollment every year since starting.

“We have students graduating with 30 credits of college credit,” said Reid. “I have former students who are now in college tell me ‘I have time to double major now.’”

Reid says the program’s success has spurred enthusiasm for providing as much opportunity as possible for their students. They’ve since expanded their multimedia center to accommodate more space for students to access online courses and connect over assignments.

“We’re trying to be innovative and creative in all areas of our school. I think the whole district has been successful with that,” said Reid.

We couldn’t agree more. To read about another school achieving good outcomes for its students as part of the Youth Career Connect Grant, read our recent story about Galveston Independent School District in Texas.