Mark Schmitz, Superintendent, Staples-Motley School District
Is career-technical education
more effectively introduced at the high school level?
A Civic Caucus
Focus on Human Capital
Interview February 13, 2015
John Adams, Janis Clay,
Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (executive director), Pahoua Hoffman, Randy
Johnson, Sallie Kemper (associate director), Dan Loritz (chair), Paul
Ostrow, Dana Schroeder (associate director) and Mark Schmitz (phone)
Mark Schmitz, superintendent,
Staples-Motley Public Schools, discusses an expansion in
career-technical education in Staples-Motley made possible by a new
voter-approved property tax. Career-technical education is easier for
students to accomplish at the high school level than at a state
technical college, he says, because at the technical college level
tightly-prescribed programs for specific career training usually
extends far beyond a nine-month school year. Another motivating factor
for the school district's offering such courses is that there's much
less bureaucracy locally at the district level than with a state
institution. But an even more compelling reason, he believes, is that
students simply need much earlier exposure to career opportunities and
shouldn't have to wait until after high-school graduation to have that
Mark Schmitz, superintendent, Staples-Motley Public Schools, began his
career by teaching third grade in Honduras with his wife, who taught
first grade across the plywood hall in an abandoned warehouse. They
returned to the United States where Schmitz taught sixth grade for six
years in South Dakota and Minnesota. After teaching, he served
as a principal for six years at Waseca Public Schools.
During the past nine years as
superintendent, he helped create Connections High School and a Jump
Start Kindergarten program, saw a referendum approved by
school-district voters to develop a comprehensive career and technical
education program for the district, and was selected by the
Commissioner of Education to become a summer fellow at Vanderbilt
Schmitz has a bachelor's degree from St.
Cloud State University and a sixth year certificate in educational
leadership and administration from Minnesota State University,
The Civic Caucus has been
learning about career and technical education as it relates to
maintaining Minnesota's high quality workforce in coming years. Of
growing interest is the extent of technical education in high schools.
Staples-Motley is a school
district in central Minnesota. Located about one hour northwest of
St. Cloud, the district serves about 1,200 students in E-12. It
encompasses about 480 square miles, including the cities of Staples
and Motley. Family income levels in the area result in about 50
percent of students being eligible for reduced or free lunch.
One of two campuses of Central Lakes
College, part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU)
system, is located in Staples. The other campus is in Brainerd. The
Staples campus includes career technical programs in heavy equipment
operation and maintenance and in agriculture.
The city of Staples has a long history as a
railroad center, with connections both to Duluth and the Twin Cities.
A large wheelhouse serving steam engines in Staples was a reason for
the 3M Company's locating a machine shop there. The city of Motley is
known for Morey's Fish and Seafood and Trident Seafoods, which
together employ about 600 people. The largest employer in the
school district is the Lakewood Health System hospital in Staples,
with about 800 employees. The area has a growing elderly population.
There is a strong community interest in
career-technical education.The Staples-Motley school district has
long had an interest in career-technical education, Schmitz said.
Years ago, it operated an area vocational technical school, when such
institutions were under the control of the local school boards.
Subsequently, the state took over the area vocational technical
schools, and since 1995 they have been merged with community colleges
under the MnSCU system.
The long-term Staples-Motley interest in
career-technical education became abundantly clear in 2010 when the
school district held community-wide input sessions. What was revealed
in those sessions, Schmitz said, was broad support for rebuilding the
community's career-technical education, to start in middle school and
continue through high school.
A special tax increase was approved. As
a result of the input sessions the Staples-Motley school board decided
to submit two questions to voters, (1) whether to continue an existing
special property tax for operations, and (2) whether to add a second
property tax, dedicated to career-technical education. Both
measures passed in the fall of 2013, with the career-technical tax
receiving a 70 percent positive vote. That dedicated tax now raises
$250,000 a year for career-technical education in the Staples-Motley
Schmitz explained what has become possible
now as a result of the special career-technical education tax. "At the
high school we have begun offering accounting, graphic art design,
technical math, computer assisted design, coding and welding. At
the middle level we have added exploratory short courses in web
design, graphic design, model building, bridge building, information
investigation, clothing design, Project Wild (wildlife focused),
landscape design, Boone and Crocket (hunting related), exploring
agriculture and forestry, Explore Minnesota, catapult construction,
sewing, child development and services, introduction to carpentry,
creative podcasting, creative engineering and introduction to
robotics. For next year and beyond we are looking at creating
science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) labs for our middle and
high school. We are at the exploratory stage as to which types
of lab equipment would be best for our students."
It is not easy for high school students to
take career-technical courses at Central Lakes College. Responding
to a question, Schmitz said that high school students can take classes
tuition free at Central Lakes College under the state's Postsecondary
Enrollment Options (PSEO) law. But it is difficult for high school
students to take career-technical courses at the college. The reason
is that a typical career-technical course is highly structured toward
a person's receiving certification for a specific job, such as
welding. Such courses usually don't fit well in a high school
student's typical schedule and may be too specific to one type of job.
For that reason, the high school career-technical courses, while
certainly occupationally oriented, are directed more to learning tasks
that could be applied in a number of occupations.
PSEO is more oriented to academic courses. Schmitz
said that it's more likely that high school students enrolling at
Central Lakes College via PSEO will take academic rather than
career-technical classes. However, it's difficult for Staples-Motley
students to take academic classes at Central Lakes because such
classes are offered mainly at Central Lakes' other campus in Brainerd,
which is 29 miles away.
The school district experiences a financial
disadvantage because of PSEO. Schmitz characterized PSEO as a
double-edged sword for the school district. The school district works
hard for, and gains financially from, every student it enrolls. On the
one hand it's very healthy for high school students to be able to
enroll in college-level courses for credit and not have to pay
tuition. However, the school district loses financially because even
though its direct classroom expenses may decline when students leave
to take PSEO, its overhead expenses continue at the same, very
It's important to expose students early to
local opportunities for education and work. It's not unusual,
Schmitz said, for students to think that they will need to go
elsewhere for jobs after graduation. Consequently, the district takes
special steps to acquaint students with education and business
opportunities in the area. In 2013, the entire sophomore class of
Staples-Motley High School toured Central Lakes College's Staples
campus and students were given time to question instructors and
students at the campus. Schmitz said the tour exposed sophomores to
new technology requirements for today's workforce. Earlier this month
60 Staples-Motley students from the class of 2015 toured Staples
businesses, including Staples Precision Metalcraft, 3M, and McKecknie
Tool, and the heavy equipment training program at Central Lakes.
Next month Staples 10th and 11th graders
will attend a Career Exploration Day in Brainerd that showcases more
than 150 regional high-demand careers with hands-on demonstrations,
simulators and breakout sessions. That event is sponsored by Bridges
Career Academies and Workplace Connections, a program co-sponsored by
Central Lakes College and the Brainerd Area Chamber of Commerce.
Schmitz briefly described another program,
(CEO), which encourages learning about local businesses and encourages
talented high school youth to develop their own business ideas within
the community. Students work with local business mentors, create
their own business plans and present their ideas to local banking
investors and business owners.
Local initiative on career-technical
education is important. In continuing discussion about respective
roles of the local school district and state-run technical colleges,
Schmitz said that it's a lot easier to get programs established at the
local level because there's much less bureaucracy than with a state
School counselors are "gate-keepers". A
questioner, noting the success of an apprenticeship program in Albert
Lea high school, inquired about the importance of school counselors.
Schmitz replied that counselors really serve as the "gate-keepers" in
advising students about future education and work opportunities.
However, he added, schools have far too few counselors.
ompulsory school attendance
to age 17 wrong-headed? A questioner noted that the Minnesota
Legislature only recently increased compulsory school attendance to
age 17 and that some people think the age should be increased to 18.
The questioner inquired whether such efforts are going exactly in the
wrong direction, on the mistaken assumption that it's beneficial to
require attendance even if students don't want to be there. If
students weren't required to remain in school after, say, reaching the
age of 16, maybe they'd be more likely to pursue a route such as
career-technical education, he suggested. Schmitz replied that the
bigger issue is getting students to start figuring out earlier what
career area they would like to pursue. Another questioner commented
that too many students have no idea of the benefit of courses they are
taking unless some effort is made to tie the course material to
A questioner highlighted the success of Kipp
Academies, a national network of public schools that help students
from educationally underserved communities develop knowledge, skills,
character and habits needed to succeed in college and in the
competitive world beyond. The culture of Kipp, the questioner said, is
to get every student thinking very early, and always, about why he or
she is in school.
Bringing the supply (of trained workers) in
line with employer demand (for trained talent). An interviewer
commented that the biggest challenge we've come across in our
interviews on the workforce is identifying the keys to ensuring that
people have the appropriate training for the jobs that will be
available. Schmitz replied that such a challenge, in the hockey lingo
of Wayne Gretzky, is to know where the puck will be, not where it is
now. So we need to look ahead to the kind of training that will be
needed for tomorrow's jobs. In the 1990s we were told that many
manufacturing and service jobs would be outsourced to other countries,
so we lowered our expectiations for the need for technical training
here in the U.S. Now we're learning that outsourcing isn't as great a
threat as expected. We now need to emphasize more technical training.
But that means more emphasis on associate and two-year degrees and
less emphasis on four-year degrees.
How does change happen? An interviewer
said that a key issue is how change of any real significance can be
made to occur. So in the case of workforce adequacy, how does a really
significant change occur in our process of matching up qualified
job-seekers with jobs that are available? Those participating in the
system as it now exists, the questioner said, can only go so far in
advocating for change before hitting barriers.
Schmitz replied by describing
Connections High School,
in effect, an alternative high school option run by the Staples-Motley
School District. Housed in Staples High School, the Connections school
emphasizes career and technical education and is the only school in
the area focusing on project-based learning. Guiding principles of
Connections High School include:
1. Project-based learning is the
framework: "Do. Apply. Reflect."
2. Learning happens in a multi-grade,
9th-to-12th-grade classroom with daily advisories.
3. Learning is grounded in core
standards in math, science and language arts.
4. Academic skills are integrated with
basic work skills: attendance, positive attitude,
cooperation, initiative and communication skills.
5. Students are responsible for their
learning; adults serve as facilitators.
6. Students learn without limits and
across disciplines within and outside of the school
7. Students plan and set goals for the
present and future.
8. Students serve others and the
Connections High School has both full and
part-time staff and a governing board that meets monthly. It is
located in one wing of Staples Motley High School. Connections
students can enroll for up to two electives (not including career and
technical classes) at Staples Motley High School and can participate
in all extracurricular activities and events there. Currently 17
students are enrolled in Connections.
Political support varies for innovation in
schools. Asked about political support for change, Schmitz said it
varies. Sometimes you find good support in the state Department of
Education and in the Governor and Legislature. At other times, support
The Civic Caucus
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business. Click here
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S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman