By Tom Still

FENNIMORE – Same story; different community.

I walked away with that feeling two weeks ago after spending time at the Southwest Wisconsin Business and Education Summit, where I spoke to teachers, counselors and administrators from school districts in seven counties as well as some of the region’s business owners and managers.

The conversation that immediately followed sounded a lot like what’s happening in Madison these days around the “personalized pathways” project in the city’s public schools.

Education leaders in Madison say they want to reach students who don’t automatically fit into a college-bound track or who know little – if anything – about career choices. Likewise, the crowd on hand in Fennimore seemed ready for a different approach.

They talked about exposing students to career opportunities at a much earlier age, beginning in middle school versus waiting until high school. They discussed the difficulties of connecting with businesses that might want to open their doors to students, but which feel hamstrung by child-labor laws and other perceived barriers to apprenticeships.

They discussed counselors who are so tied up with behavioral issues or standardized testing that precious little time is left to talk with students about career choices. They talked about the need for more school “Career Days” and release time for teachers to meet with business leaders on their own turf.

Perhaps most telling, they discussed the role of parents who might think a traditional college route is the only road to be followed by their sons and daughters – often because they aren’t aware of other opportunities close to home.

The conversation at Southwest Technical College in Fennimore is not unlike what’s happening in communities across Wisconsin, where educators, business people and others are worried about meeting workforce needs in an era when demographics threaten to crimp the state’s economic growth.

Unless current trends change somewhat dramatically, Wisconsin will be home to more adults who are retired than who are working within 15 years. Keeping more young people engaged and exploring careers close to home is part of the answer.

That goal is reflected in the Madison School District’s “personalized pathways” program, which is scheduled to start for high-school students next year. At its core, it’s a way to get students thinking about what they do after graduation long before the diploma is granted.

It also aims to engage students who otherwise might not get a degree, at all, especially if they fail to see the connection to a career. While Madison high schools graduate 90 percent of their students, losing 10 percent is an unwelcome price for a society that needs all of the contributing citizens it can produce.

The Madison district’s first announced pathway will be health care, a field where economists predict a growing number of jobs over time. Future pathways will likely include other fields.

Some parents fear the Madison pathways project will constitute “tracking” or discourage students from taking electives that otherwise broaden their experience, but the program design doesn’t suggest that’s the case.

Nor should the pathways approach get in the way of students who are bound for a four-year college or university. In fact, it could help them by combining real-world experience and advanced placement courses.

Kids often don’t know what they don’t know. They may be exposed only to what they see at home or what they hear from friends. Efforts such as the Madison pathways project could introduce young people to careers in information technology, manufacturing, building trades and much more.

In a state that needs all the talented workers it can get, it’s worth a try.