New ideas, attitudes, opportunities for students

New ideas, attitudes and opportunities are coming for Minnesota students. That was a central theme at the Feb. 6 “Pathways to Post-Secondary” conference, co-sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

If things work out as state officials hope, Minnesota students will know more about career options, be better prepared for them, and be more likely to find a good job that pays well.

Those are great goals. They are going to require some rethinking by families and some refinements in schools.

Joel Vargas, a featured speaker at the conference, helped introduce new ideas to about 140 educators and community members who attended the conference. Vargas is vice president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides information to educators and legislators. Vargas was not expected to attend college, but a special program provided encouragement and assistance. He ultimately earned a doctorate from Harvard and has dedicated his life to expanding opportunity for others.

Vargas promoted several ideas:

•It’s important for all kinds of students to take some form of dual-credit (high school and college) courses. Vargas emphasized the value of allowing a broad range of students to participate in these courses. He shared several studies showing that students who take these courses, in a high school or on a college campus, are much more likely to graduate from high school, enroll and graduate from some form of higher education. This can be a one-, two- or four-year program.

• Students need accurate information about future jobs. Vargas cited research showing that more than 70 percent of jobs by 2020 will require some education beyond high school, though not necessarily a four-year degree (read more about this at

• Students should consider that many high-paying, enjoyable jobs are available in technical fields like welding, digital imaging, advanced manufacturing, etc. These often require a one- or two-year degree or certificate beyond high school.

A 90-second video featuring Vargas is at His full presentation is at

John Christiansen, superintendent of Intermediate School District 917, based in Rosemount, told me “the need is now.” He’s finding that Dakota County employers, and others around the state, are facing shortages of people trained in technical fields. Christiansen encourages students and families to be open to many fine jobs in these fields. This may require new attitudes and a greater openness to such jobs.

2013 Minnesota legislation requires that each student, starting in the ninth grade, develop a personal learning plan. It will be based on their interests, talents and skills. The plan will be updated as students move through high school. This is a terrific idea. Future columns will discuss how it’s being implemented.

Sen. Greg Clausen, D-Apple Valley, a former public school educator, attended the conference. He strongly supports the 2013 law and is working to help implement it.

The Feb. 6 conference, held in Rosemount at the Dakota County Technical College, was the seventh and last in a series of meetings held around the state. Each offered research, strategies and examples of how schools and colleges are partnering to help students develop, as state legislation requires, the “knowledge, skills and competencies to pursue a career pathway.”

I hope MDE and MnSCU hold more meetings like this. If they do, the conferences could benefit from an expanded list of partners and presentations. That could include presentations by students, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Private College Council and charter public schools faculty.

Thanks to Christiansen, other educators and state legislators, good information will be shared with students and families. These new ideas and opportunities are good for students and good for Minnesota.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.