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Chamber conducts focus groups for school district

The Shelton-Mason County Chamber of Commerce’s Zoom meeting split into focus groups Dec. 16 to answer several questions designed to help the Shelton School District develop a five-year plan.

When asked to describe what they saw as the school district’s reputation in the business community, Melissa Strong, chief nursing officer at Mason Health, credited the district with being “pretty involved” in the Health Science Academy rollout, which she deemed a “really great experience for us” and a “really good partnership.”

Strong said she would like to see that program expand into nursing school and medical assistant opportunities.

Cynthia Newman, co-owner of Vance Creek Railriders, praised the high school students her business hired.

Newman expressed a strong interest in “what’s happening with the school district” because she’s “seen a lot of wonderful construction.”

Melanie Bakala, owner of Shelton State Farm Insurance, said she believes the school district has a good reputation in the business community, though she acknowledged the two groups’ interactions can often be cursory.

“The school district is trying to educate students, and we’re trying to run our businesses, so many of our interactions tend to be in our spare time,” said Bakala, who said their dealings “can feel like a box-checking exercise.” She emphasized, “I know we’re both working on that.”

Bakala and Kirsten Faberzak, chamber office manager, noted the school district can get a “bad rap” due to its test scores, with Faberzak adding that she’s heard business folks wonder aloud whether graduation standards have been adjusted to benefit the schools’ graduation rates.

Faberzak said she’s received lots of positive feedback from businesspeople about the district’s academies and “how they set students up for success in the business community.”

Bakala agreed that the “constantly developing” academies have constituted “a huge success story for the district over the past four years.”

“So many of the conversations seem to revolve around getting ready for college, and the academies have certainly helped with that,” Bakala said. “But being prepared to go into the workforce at the age of 18 is equally important.”

Bakala called for a balance between educating students to be well-rounded while also “focusing on their gifts,” as opposed to requiring them to enroll in advanced courses in subjects that won’t serve them in their post-graduate life.

Christie Johnson, executive director of CareNet of Mason County, agreed with Bakala, expressing concerns that students who might be better-suited to careers in fields such as construction or engineering might be made to “feel like failures” for not receiving “top scores in English.”

Bakala also suggested that certain “basic skills used to be handled at home,” from managing household finances to effective written communication.

Carina Valtierra, prevention education specialist for the Turning Point Survivor Advocacy Center, said her job involves going out into the community to teach healthy relationship skills. Valtierra suggested she would be willing to join with the Shelton School District to teach such skills.

Faberzak suggested students receive more education on “soft skills,” from the etiquette of customer service to interacting with peers and older adults in the workplace.

Strong recalled that part of the school district’s pre-pandemic academy model would include job-shadowing, and she too agreed that students could use not only on-the-job experience, but also coping skills and self-care to prevent burnout. She acknowledged that COVID had created a “huge disruption” to those plans.

The focus group was asked what key knowledge, skills and experiences the district should address to ensure students were ready for life after school.

Bakala suggested a “signing day” for students entering post-graduate careers, in much the same way that scholarship award recipients are celebrated.

Faberzak brought up computer skills.

“No matter what industry you go into now, you’re expected to operate software,” she said.

She said students need to know how to communicate on electronic devices in full sentences with non-abbreviated, correctly spelled words.

Just as Faberzak voiced what she saw as the importance of “self-dependence” and “being an advocate for yourself,” Bakala also affirmed the need for new young employees to be able to learn by obtaining information for themselves, as they go, and being “brave enough to do stuff they might not be comfortable with yet.”

She said she’s had younger prospective employees “who just don’t learn that way, and I can’t even hire them, because our jobs are too hard for them.”

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Kirk Boxleitner, Reporter

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Shelton-Mason County Journal & Belfair Herald
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