ow one local school district is adapting: Ballston Spa Central School District

In this installment, we examine the curriculum put in place by the Ballston Spa Central School District, which is the home school district in which the GlobalFoundries chip plant is located. Joseph P. Dragone, Ph.D. is the Superintendent of the district and has been a key driver in building a collaboration with Hudson Valley Community College’s (HVCC) TEC-SMART program.  The collaboration has led to a first-of-its-kind Clean Technologies & Sustainable Industries Early College High School initiative which “…provides students with knowledge and skill sets necessary to make informed college and career decisions as they relate to the clean technology field. A blended form of instruction that infuses direct instruction with authentic experiences and research provides students with foundational knowledge in the emerging technology fields.

Dr. Dragone began the conversation by noting that the workforce issue discussed in the original article (namely, the apparent difficulties finding and preparing individuals to work at GlobalFoundries) could largely be attributed to the newness of the opportunities in question.  This novelty leads to two challenges for educational organizations: (1) raising awareness of the great opportunities available to students, and (2) vertically integrating educational programs between elementary, secondary and post-secondary institutions.  It was in answer to both challenges that he helped create the Clean Technologies & Sustainable Industries (CTSI) program in partnership with HVCC’s TEC-SMART facility. CTSI was piloted in the 2011-2012 school year to students of the district and was very well received.  It expanded for the 2012-2013 school year to provide access to CTSI to schools throughout the Capital Region of New York (i.e. the Albany/Schenectady/Troy MSA, including Saratoga County) and is now in its second year of expanded operations.  Of the 21 that graduated from the first cohort (i.e. the 2011-2012 pilot year), 15 went on to HVCC, 4 continued to a traditional 4-year degree program and 2 entered the military.  The CTSI program now serves 110 pupils originating from 20 school districts across a seven-county area.  Photos and additional descriptions of the CTSI program can be found at the CTSI homepage.

Educational organizations are, by their nature, slow to change and have to serve many masters beyond just economic development (witness the Regents exams in New York State, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, local voters, the State Board of Education, the local school board, teachers, unions, and the students themselves, just to name just a few).  With that said, Joe noted that teachers and guidance counselors are increasingly aware of and are promoting the opportunities available not just at GlobalFoundries but at many local employers in the region that all require the same sorts of STEM-type degrees.  He feels that a significant part of his work is outside the traditional education framework of teaching a particular curriculum: namely, that part of his district’s role is simplifying and clarifying the “career pathways” available to a highschooler by helping him/her find a solid, clear and compelling post-secondary option.  One of the consistent messages his staff tries to convey in their day-to-day work is that “there is no good option with just a high school diploma” for a lifetime of work and that “to prosper, you have to find an appropriate career pathway”.  In practice, that means a minimum of an associate’s degree after high school.  Laying out the array of options is especially tough according to Dr. Dragone, because the students in question are still minors and the choices that are to be made are, in fact, really “family choices” that may involve one or more parents, mentors, extended family members, and many other influences coming to bear on the highschooler. 

An important part of the messaging process is to expose the students to as much of the outside “work-world” as possible.  The district seeks to do so at an early age --- Dr. Dragone noted that 75 fourth and fifth graders from his district just toured the GlobalFoundries chip fab.  Outside of the CTSI program, the district has a very successful biomedical preparatory program (over 150 students enrolled) that tries to expose students to careers in medical technology and research.  Even something as simple as building one of the school’s server rooms with transparent glass doors in a frequented corridor is an effort to stimulate students with a concrete, real-life example of technology at work.  The district also invites speakers related to various STEM career pathways into the schools – examples include presentations by NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, an extension of state government focused on energy innovation), CSArch, Gilbane, Cisco, TRC, and Building Performance Institute, among many others. The district organizes other tours of local manufacturers, such as Momentive Performance Technologies (formerly GE Silicon) and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

The hope is that, with enough exposure and knowledge, more students will have clarity they need to establish a solid career pathway, such as that of the Clean Technologies & Sustainable Industries program through TEC-SMART.  And CTSI does provide a very clear and direct pathway to ample job opportunities.  CTSI students enter during their junior year and attend classes at TEC-SMART in the morning, returning to their home school in the afternoon.  Seniors that continue with the program not only get the post-secondary experience at TEC-SMART but also have the chance to participate in internships in the renewable energy and nanotechnology fields.  From the program brochure, the program coursework includes, “Sustainable Design, Nanotechnology, Wind Power, Photovoltaic Systems [and] Advanced Computer Assisted Design […The program is set up to] build student skills in applying theory, critical thinking and problem-solving – skills in demand among today’s employers.” The proof of how compelling this career pathway has been is that, as noted above, the 21 students in the original cohort have voted with their feet: 19 have enrolled at HVCC or in a 4-year degree program (two entered the military).

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