Davey Sapinski and Pat Acker: Digital education can drive rural Wisconsin’s future

Originally published in the Capital Times Newspaper – September 4, 2019

Every morning at 7 a.m, a line of young faces looks up from their computers in a Medford Area Senior High classroom. Clad in sweatshirts and jeans, some of them are nursing coffee, others are fighting back yawns. The one thing they have in common? They’re teenagers ready to build the Wisconsin of tomorrow.

Wisconsin students are entering one of the strongest economies the state has seen in decades. Unemployment is low and optimism is high. Nevertheless, employers still struggle to find the talent they need. According to a 2018 survey, more than three-quarters of business leaders say they have a hard time hiring.

How to account for this gap — a gap particularly pronounced in manufacturing and the trades? In large part, it’s a result of our education system. Although career paths in manufacturing provide students with a steady wage that can support a family, we nevertheless assume that a four-year college degree is the ideal path for everyone, regardless of their particular skills or abilities. For many students, this not only means a months-long job hunt after receiving their bachelor’s degree; it also means decades of debt and a delay in their financial ability to start and support a family. Wisconsin graduates carry, on average, almost $30,000 in student debt.

The problem is especially acute in rural areas. Places like Medford aren’t short on talented young people. We have some of the best, most committed students anywhere. But smaller districts will always have a hard time matching the broad array of opportunities that higher-resourced urban and suburban districts can.

The Medford kids who come in at 7 a.m. are fighting that status quo — and they’re doing it online. Each morning, they complete the next lesson in an online curriculum designed in partnership with the Local 139 — Wisconsin’s chapter of the International Union of Operating Engineers. It’s a unique high school experience using a blended-learning model that combines the collaborative environment of the brick-and-mortar classroom with the wide variety of curricula available in the digital classroom.

Students don’t need to leave their friends or their hometown to get access to the classes they want. And if sports practice or family responsibilities sometimes prevent them from getting to class by 7, the self-directed structure of the course means they can finish the lesson in study hall or on their own after school, as courses are recorded so students can listen in later.

After a few months of virtual practice, these students get to see what it looks like in the real world through an externship with the Local 139, where they can see area engineers construct the buildings and infrastructure of tomorrow. And if these students complete the program, they receive credit from their local high school and from Local 139’s apprenticeship program — which, unlike college, pays participants to prepare for a career.

Blended learning has the potential to help strengthen local economies by preventing brain drain. Instead of leaving their hometown to attend a university in another part of the state, and then leaving their home state to work in another part of the country, students get connected with opportunities available in their own backyard. It also benefits employers. Instead of having to expend energy and resources training new workers or attracting talent from outside the region, they have a pool of well-prepared local talent to pick from.

It’s time we start implementing this innovative model all across the state. While college used to be the path to prosperity, times have changed and our education methods must change with them. Instead of molding our students into a cookie-cutter — not to mention expensive — American ideal, let’s let them take charge of their own learning and invest in their own interests. Let’s harness the digital revolution to create equal opportunity in education. Above all, let’s empower them to live active, engaged lives as workers and citizens in their local community.

Davey Sapinski is a tech ed teacher at Medford Area Senior High School. Pat Acker teaches marketing, personal finance, economics, project management, accounting and business classes at the Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, powered by K12, Inc.

To learn more about Destination Career Academy of Wisconsin, visit https://widca.k12.com/.

Featured Articles