Students work at a variety of stations during the vocational welding class taught by Andrew Zinn at Davenport West High School. Muscatine Community School District is planning an alternative high school experience that would provide students who do not plan to attend a traditional four-year college with marketable job skills by the time they leave high school. 

MUSCATINE — Students in Muscatine may soon have other options besides the typical high school experience. 

An alternative high school experience in the Muscatine Community School District is in the planning stages. MCSD superintendent explained the program would address the drop-out rate and a deficit of workforce skills.

Superintendent Jerry Riibe provided an update Monday to the Muscatine School Board Monday on the progress of the proposed Pathways program. He said it would provide a clear route for students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associates degree or vocational certificate from Muscatine Community College, preparing them for the workforce.

"It could really help some of our kids who come into ninth grade without seeing a purpose for why they should go to school," he said.

He explained that students performing below the top 30 percent and above the bottom 25 percent have viewed high school as a path to college. Those students may struggle to complete their high school education, he said, if they do not intend to enroll in two- or four-year post-secondary education. Enrollment in the district has declined over the last 10 years, but the drop-out rate has remained relatively steady — about 3.6%, on average, since 2008. 

Pathways would provide more options for those students and could also help fill the skilled labor deficit.

"There is no doubt when you look at the workforce today, non-skilled labor is not going to be a pathway to a middle-class life or it's going to be very difficult," Riibe said. "Everyone is going to need a set of marketable skills moving forward."

Gov. Kim Reynolds' Future Ready Iowa initiative has a goal to increase the state's workforce education and/or training beyond high school from 58 percent to 70 percent by 2025.

Pathways would be different than other options provided by the district. The former East Campus was a credit-recovery program for at-risk students and those "who had already gotten themselves into a hole," Riibe said, and students didn't graduate with marketable skills. The district closed the campus in 2017 as a cost-savings measure. In an interview before the closure, Riibe told the Journal closing East Campus was a way to maximize budget dollars by bringing the 50-60 students on campus back to the high school where other supports were offered.

East Campus students had the option of participating in existing programs at the high school, including the Ninth and Tenth Academy. The academy still provides student support through smaller class sizes, but is focused on academic success where Pathways would give students "purpose, meaning and direction," Riibe said.

Pathways would not be an effective option for students planning to attend college after high school, Riibe said, and the district is already successful in assisting those students anyway.

"Where I don't think we have the response we need is for those kids that would be successful if we could connect them to the right set of activities, the right direction, the right perspective on (school)," he said.

Tentatively, the program will begin with the ninth grade class of approximately 30-50 students during the 2021 school year. Program enrollment will build by being available to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students in subsequent years.

The first two years of the program would have students concentrating on academics and soft employment skills including problem-solving and work ethic. The school district has met with representatives from the college, Riibe said, and will need to determine how to adapt high school graduation credits to correspond with coursework at the college.

"We want this to be a value-added experience," he said.

The second two years of the program will have students immersed in in-the-field experiences and internships. Riibe said having a cohort of students graduating from a vocational program can "make a difference in the community" by filling jobs in Muscatine's industries. 

Riibe said former Colorado Elementary School Prinicipal Gretchen Price is leading the project's planning stages and may have more information for the school board at the next meeting August 12.  

"There are a number of hurdles in front of us," Riibe said, "but I'm confident we can work our way through those."

Riibe said nearly every school struggles with how to assist "behavior non-compliant" students and those performing in the bottom 25 percent. He said the district provides academic, social and emotional support, but there's still a gap in how to best assist those students.

"We still haven't cracked that code," he said, "and we have to because those kids will stay in our community, and we need to make sure they are productive members of our community."

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