Almost three years ago, Madera Unified School District decided to find a new way for students to prepare for the work-a-day world. The district hired Sheryl Sisil as its new director of college and career readiness, and prepared to join the burgeoning Career Pathways Movement.
Sisil promised that a new day was dawning and said, “It will be like moving from the outhouse to a penthouse.”
Sisil and her staff were as good as their word, and their accomplishments in transforming what once was called vocational education has educators sitting up and taking notice.
Last week Sisil was asked to speak to the semi-annual meeting of the RTM Education Congress in Los Angeles about the “new day that was dawning” in Madera Unified’s career and technical education program (CTE).
Sisil told the by-invitation-only audience that when she was made the director of college and career readiness in 2014, she inherited the remnant of the “career school model.”
However, in that same year, the state came up with a bundle of significant CTE grants, and Madera landed a $600,000 allotment for plant science, which focused on viticulture and enology, and set Madera Unified in a new direction, which began the transition away from the career school model to a “more robust” career pathway model.
As Sisil settled into her new job, several obiter dicta emerged in her mind. First, she told her audience that it was really important to her, as a life-long resident of Madera, to get feedback from the stakeholders, especially the kids and parents, so that “we knew we were offering pathways that fit here in Madera.”
“Student interest is vital,” Sisil maintained. “We had to link that to the needs of the community. That is what career technical education is really founded on.”
Second, Sisil said the district had to find the critical areas of need in the local work force. Agriculture, advanced manufacturing, health careers, and public safety were quickly identified, and the district moved to meet those needs.
Then there were the challenges, the most urgent of which was changing the mindset. Sisil says there are some, even among the district staff, “who still believe that college for all is the way to go.” Some, she said, believed that college and career readiness meant just college. “If you say college and career, you have to mean both,” Sisil insisted.
After getting the pathways program approved by the school board in October 2015, Sisil and her staff had to sit down and write the curriculum. They had to dive deeply into the programs. She met with every CET teacher to identify their goals.
Whereas, 2015/16 was the year of designing and development of courses, 2015/2016 was the year of Career Pathway implementation.
Sisil said they wrote 18 courses that were new to MUSD, and of those, 16 were written such that they were recognized by the California University system.
While acknowledging that all of the stakeholders are critical to the career pathways program, including parents, school board, site administrators, and district administrators, Sisil gave abundant kudos to the district’s industry partners.
“When you start talking about our industry partners, who are attached to our different pathways, I couldn’t have bigger champions for the work that we are doing.”
Sisil said Industry partners come to school meetings. They provide feedback, help generate donations, and open up their facilities to students for tours and field trips.
Local manufacturers hold a “Manufacturing Day” event every October in which they open their businesses to high school kids to visit.
Camarena Health puts on a health careers conference for students, and this summer the district will conduct an agriculture camp for 7th graders.
Sisil says the quality of staff and community partnerships are the most important parts of the pathways program. “They are the meat and potatoes.”
One aspect of her experience at the Education Congress surprised Sisil. She was asked, “Being a female, how did you build credibility with business partners?”
She responded by pointing out that her credibility comes in part from being born and reared in Madera. It also comes from the fact that she was an agriculture teacher, worked in her father’s manufacturing shop, knows how to weld, drive a truck and trailer and is at home on a tractor.
Sisil told the educators, “From top to bottom our pathways must have what is needed for students to meet standards and acquire the skills and knowledge that make them ready to go to work after high school if they choose.”
“We have our equipment up to date, our facilities are being brought up to date, and we are beginning a huge modernization project at Madera High School.”
“So there is a commitment by this school district and our community to see that this career pathway model is successful.”
Sisil said the MUSD career pathways of the near future will include the agriculture magnet academy at Madera South High School, the industrial technology, automotive and diesel truck service and repair, and residential and commercial construction programs at Madera High School, and the manufacturing and engineering pathways at the new high school.
As to her greatest challenge, Sisil said, it is “insuring that what I have committed to the district and what I have committed to the community is really happening in our classrooms — that we are delivering high levels of teaching and high-level programs.”
“That means not only keeping the partnerships and community relationships we have now, but continuing to build those relationships.
And her goal? Sisil says it is “seeing the kids are getting rigorous academics and the appropriate career knowledge and skills so they can go out and choose career or college, which ever path they want so that they can be successful.”