Nan Austin

Students, business leaders look together toward future

College. Jobs. The future and all it could hold took center stage at a meeting of business leaders and high school students. The conversation turned to Common Core and the lynchpin role that industry and educators hope it will play in raising the bar for our local economy.

“You go away to school. You see the world. But you come back here, is our hope,” Stanislaus Superintendent Tom Changnon told Leadership Academy students sitting across from Leadership Modesto participants.

The teens and local leaders met over quiche and croissants before heading out for a day of field trips Friday as part of Leadership Modesto Education Day, organized by the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

Success comes when work is a creative outlet, a job that’s a joy to go to, Changnon said, adding that those jobs take college-ready skills.

“It used to be with a high school diploma, you could go anywhere,” he said. In 1980, 60 percent of jobs took nothing more. Today, he said, only 15 percent of jobs do not require training beyond high school.

The answer is not the test-mania of the No Child Left Behind decade, he said. “We have become very good at taking tests. Common Core is trying to get students away from that,” Changnon said.

Students said the Leadership Academy helped them realize the wide variety of jobs out there. “I’m learning a lot about the community. I’m learning how everything works together,” said Jaclyn Warwick, who attends Modesto Christian High.

“I learned self-accountability,” said Baylee Carlin, a Ceres High junior. Talking to a chief executive, Baylee said, “Being CEO is a hard job. You need to work to get what you want.”

Business folks also said they got a lot from the meeting, learning a lot about how schools have changed over the past few years. Most said change was needed.

Industry has seen a drop in qualified applicants in recent years, said Derek Ford, who works in human resources for the Modesto Irrigation District. “I think there is a skills gap,” he said.

“In general, we see weak reading, thinking and writing skills,” she said of incoming college students. “Students often do not read. We see this at all levels. In the first reading class, they are assigned a novel. They’ll say, ‘This is the first novel I’ve ever read,’” she said.

Christopherson was asked to look over the Common Core English standards and report back to her colleagues. She looked at the standards and spoke with teachers now using them. What she found, she said, was strong theory but a rough transition.

“Their goals for English align very well with our prerequisites for transfer-level English courses,” she said. “There’s a lot of ifs, but in a few more years, when it’s internalized, it should get better.”

She especially likes the emphasis on nonfiction, where she sees students struggle once they get to college-level courses. “It’s very hard, engaging students in nonfiction. You can get them hooked on a good story,” Christopherson said.

“I found the balance of readings and assignments to be entirely reasonable. It made me wonder what schools were doing before this big change,” she notes in her report. “The short answer that I found was that previously there was more teaching to the test or focus on testing strategies. Under the current plan or standards, analysis of text is going to be taught and tested.”

Sitting in her book-filled office, Christopherson said the switch to asking students to argue, compare and contrast will not be easy. “It’s a big challenge, but I think it’s very interesting.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.