Twenty years ago, I got lucky.
I was a pretty typical student at my public high school in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. I did my homework, studied when I needed to for tests and had a solid GPA. My social life was the most important thing on my mind; school didn’t really challenge me, and I didn’t challenge myself.
One day, my sophomore English teacher told me she thought I had a skill. She held up a paper I had written and told the class it was a great example of strong writing. She recommended me for AP English and when junior year rolled around and I had to start thinking about life after high school, finding a way to use these skills was the natural next step for me. My mom told me about potential degrees and careers where I could use my writing skills. And by the start of my senior year, I had a plan.
There was never a question in my mind that I would go to college and stick with it. My mom and dad set a powerful example, spending years working toward their bachelor’s degrees while working and raising two girls. My mom even went on to finish her Master’s degree when I was 12, then her doctorate when I was 25.
Twenty years ago, I was lucky. I had a teacher who helped me uncover a skill. And I had parents who showed me the importance of a college education, and knew how to help me find a career path and degree program. I completed my journalism degree and built a successful career in marketing communications
But not every student is as lucky.
This week, I traveled to a rural community with some of my KnowledgeWorks colleagues. We met with local leaders working hard to improve the local economy, create jobs, increase wellness and help local students succeed.
For decades, the majority of students in this community have not had the same support that I did. While 91 percent of students graduate high school, most do not have the skills needed to succeed in college or careers. Local parents want to help their kids succeed, but don’t necessarily know how. Only 20 percent of residents have a college degree, the majority of students who succeed in college are not returning to the community to work, and new businesses coming into the region are not finding the talent they need locally.
Education results and workforce needs are out of sync. And this challenge is common in rural communities across the country.
To overcome this challenge, the K-12 education system, higher education, business and local economic development efforts have to come together. And the community leaders I met this week are working hard to make this happen. They’re looking at early college high school models to help students start their college journey as early as in the 9th grade. They’re focusing on STEM and career-focused curriculum and experiences to help give kids the skills they need to fill the jobs local businesses are creating today and in the future. And, they’re investigating competency education approaches to ensure that students master the skills they need to succeed.
Until just recently, I didn’t realize how fortunate I really was to find my path 20 years ago, and to have the support I needed to get to college, finish and be successful. Today, as I worry about my son’s path and how to make sure he has the education and support he needs, I’m inspired and encouraged by the leaders I met yesterday and others across the country that are working to change the system to ensure every child can succeed.