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‘Signature’ Programs Prepare Jefferson County Students for the Future

By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

Starting this fall, Jefferson County Schools (JEFCOED) will begin a pilot of Naviance, a software which enables students to connect with scholarship providers and employment opportunities. The first leg of the program will enable students to receive notifications about scholarship offers.

The plan is to get employers in the county onboard, meaning the software would match students with job opportunities at local companies, based on credentials they have earned through the “Signature Academies” programming as well as from the other career and technical training opportunities that can be accessed by JEFCOED students.

“We are setting up a system by which the HR departments of those companies that are within a 50-mile radius have access to the number of children and connect the two, where the children can interview for apprenticeship jobs and for entry level jobs while still in high school,” Gonsoulin said.

Graduating about 2,600 students per year JEFCOED is the “workforce for Jefferson County,” said the superintendent.

And, to better prepare its students for higher learning or careers after graduation, the system last year began two programs, one for high school and another for elementary school.

Elementary Schools

This year, JEFCOED’s “theme schools” began at six elementary schools and molded curriculum around one of three themes: visual and performing arts; science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and global language and leadership.

The six schools, all in the Clay-Chalkville and Minor High School feeder patterns include:

  • Adamsville Elementary School – STEM
  • Bryant Park Elementary School – arts
  • Chalkville Elementary School – STEM
  • Clay Elementary School – global language and leadership
  • Minor Community School – arts
  • W. Clemon Elementary School – global language and leadership

While JEFCOED has not yet released data on the pilot theme schools program, administrators have said that they have seen increases in parent involvement and test scores.

After starting with a focus on what happens after students graduate, the educators then go into high school where they can develop a more specific focus on what happens after students get their diplomas, said Dr. Walter Gonsoulin, superintendent at JEFCOED.

“Those children, once they’re exposed to all of those different things, they can matriculate up to the high school where we have our signature academies,” Gonsoulin said.

High Schools

In 2022, JEFCOED began the “Signature Academies” program for its high school students. Any students between eighth and 10th grades in the JEDCOED system can apply to join one of a number of academies spread across each of the system’s high schools.

Within the academies, students receive specialized instruction and can even earn professional credentials in a variety of industries including healthcare, information technology, manufacturing, construction and transportation.

A key feature of the academies program is that students are not limited to the programming at their home school but can also apply for academies at schools in their zone, of which JEFCOED has four. In total, there are 28 academies spread across the 13 JEFCOED high schools.

Through the first year of the program, JEFCOED students earned 3,067 credentials, according to the school system.

Additionally, the system also hosted an “Industry Connection Day” in April, which brought more than 30 employers to meet with students and connected 50 students with part- and full-time jobs.

JEFCOED’s push for college and career readiness (CCR) comes as the Alabama State Department of Education has increased requirements for CCR offerings, according to Gonsoulin.

Upon receiving that challenge, Gonsoulin said administration at the school system sought to make CCR meaningful at all levels of schooling.

“In terms of curriculum, we wanted to see how we take this theme, college or career ready, and how do we make it mean something from kindergarten all the way up to high school?” the superintendent said.

Today, JEFCOED has put together a system of CCR programming that it takes “pride” in, said Gonsoulin, who pointed to the variety of offerings the system provides.

“In Jefferson County, we want to provide as many educational opportunities as possible, so children can go into high-interest, high wage jobs… We have welding, we have graphic design, just different types of programs for our students,” Gonsoulin said.

Within JEFCOED’s health science academies students even have access to experiences like ambulance simulation that are basically “just real life,” he said.