A $382,226 state-funded grant will help the Southern Oregon Education Service District bring new career-readiness programs to Jackson County students as soon as next year.

The programs will be new to this region, but some are familiar to the service district, which works with 13 school districts across Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties. The SOESD first launched the Southern Oregon Air Academy in 2015 as a summer camp for Grants Pass middle-schoolers. The students learn how to fly drones and some basics of aerodynamics, and end the experience in a flight over Grants Pass accompanying a pilot. Through hands-on learning, that camp gives students a window into careers falling under the umbrella of science, technology, engineering, arts and math — often grouped as STEAM careers.

Since then, the program has expanded beyond the airport to include 26 other camps where students have learned welding, 3-D printing and app development, to name a few. The intent behind these summer activities — and the various grants that enable their expansion into new subjects, schools and counties — is to more deeply incorporate career and college readiness into K-12 education.

Daniella Bivens oversees the SOESD's multifaceted efforts to achieve this goal: She heads the SOESD's Southern Promise Grant Program, its College and Career For All Movement and STEM hub (the state name does not include arts, though the district does). The ESD's approach is multifaceted: The Air Academy and camps like it are intended to bolster Career and Technical Education, referred to as CTE. Beyond that, however, the district wants the camps to be a vehicle for hands-on and practice-based learning to become more rooted in the classroom.

"It's really about relevancy and context," Bivens said. "We can see that students (who experience CTE) are succeeding at a greater rate."

In the 2013-14 school year, Oregon students who took one or more CTE credit graduated at a higher rate than the general student population: 85.7 percent compared to 72 percent, according to data from Oregon's Chief Education Office. Another argument in favor of CTE is it gives students advantages in the workforce by teaching practical skills.

SOESD Superintendent Scott Beveridge said the district wants to offer resources so that students' experience in K-12 education prepares them for "high-wage, high-skill, high-demand jobs." The ESD works with other community partners across various industries to create a strategic plan showing where there's high local demand for jobs and what skills employers are looking for. Healthcare, electricity and welding were all examples Beveridge cited as being in high demand for workers in the area.

The district then uses that information to establish programs such as the summer camps that engage students in thinking about their individual career paths at least by middle school, but even earlier in the future.

"We want to get all the way to elementary school now because we lose (students)," Bivens said. "We want to mitigate dropout rates and try to get students invested."

The next step in bringing the CTE and STEAM concepts from the summer camps to the schools is to get teachers involved, Bivens said. January through March will be spent identifying and training teachers across the school districts to not only be involved in the new camps next summer, but also to begin incorporating hands-on and project-based CTE/STEAM learning in their classes as early as the 2018-19 school year. Communications to parents about the efforts will be channeled mostly through the individual school districts.

Beveridge said the SOESD is excited about CTE and STEAM partly because of their ability to close achievement gaps among underserved populations in public education. Research in Oregon and other states has shown that students with poor attendance or a decreased likelihood of graduating can turn their paths around after being encouraged to see long-term potential in a career they're passionate about.

"It propels them past graduation," Beveridge said. "They look past high school graduation because they're looking at their future."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.