April 4, 2014

NexStep program a pathway to jobs

Victor Moreno dropped out of North High School before his senior year when he realized he wouldn’t have enough credits to graduate.

Victor Moreno dropped out of North High School before his senior year when he realized he wouldn’t have enough credits to graduate.

But his father kept after him and, this week, Moreno was at NexStep, 3351 N. Webb Road, about to go to one of his GED classes.

NexStep isn’t just about education, it’s also about job training.

Moreno expects to get his diploma, then go up the street to the National Center for Aviation Training.

“I really want to get my GED and then go over and become an A and P (airframe and powerplant) mechanic,” he said.

NexStep is an innovative program that combines the GED program at Goodwill Industries, technical education at Wichita Area Technical College and job placement and funding responsibility of Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas.

The program is two years old, but it took its current form when it opened in October on the second floor of the Goodwill Industries building on North Webb. There is a suite of newly built classrooms, a test-taking lab, tutoring space, offices and a prominently placed job board covered with help-wanted ads.

Program director Gayle Goetz said the program expects about 1,300 students in 2013-14.

In addition to GED classes, it offers space for the early classes in a Certified Nursing Assistant program and will soon add a starting blueprint-reading class for the aircraft programs. Students are team-taught – by the subject teacher and the GED teacher to help with subject mastery.

After those first classes, students have to move on to WATC. The idea, Goetz said, is to ease students into job training by having their first classes across the hall from their algebra class.

Goetz said it’s important to recognize that these students, from age 16 to over 65, usually have big barriers in their lives, such as family disruptions, sickness, small children. The program tries to be supportive – there’s even a counselor who works with the students – but the bottom line is they have to power through those disruptions.

“The biggest issue is frustration,” she said. “It’s tough to fit in education along with working and raising a family. But they have to want to do it more than I want them to do it. There has to be buy-in.”

One of the program’s hurdles is the cost to attend.

NexStep students fall into a “gap,” Goetz said. Government money is available for technical education for high school enrollees and for high school graduates while they take classes, but there’s no funding for high school dropouts.

She and others around the state are pushing Senate Bill 429 this session, which will provide state funding for student tuition.

Keith Lawing, director of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, said creating a continuum from adult education to job training may seem obvious, but it’s unusual because of the difficulty in merging programs. Even NexStep, he said, struggles with integrating information from the private Goodwill and the public WATC, public school districts, the Kansas Department of Labor and the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

That means asking students for the same information over and over and it makes it cumbersome for staff to track students as they move through the program, he said.

Still, he regards the program as an innovative “best practice” in the area of adult education. Though it’s a bit of an experiment, so far it seems to be working well. And success will drive more funding as agencies, public and private, seek successes to support.

“We know we have to have strong outcomes to justify the program, as we are very confident we will,” he said.

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