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Education a main theme at 12th annual North Coutry Symposium

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CANTON — Overcoming budget challenges to provide public school students with new opportunities to help keep them in the north country’s workforce was the message and goal of the 12th annual North Country Symposium.

More than 100 students, teachers, superintendents, business executives and nonprofit representatives gathered Monday in St. Lawrence University’s Eben Holden Conference Center to discuss collaboration to help students make the transition from high school to college and the workforce.

“The public schools in the north country, because they’re rural school districts, are struggling because they’re faced with a combination of factors,” said James C. Shuman, chairman of the symposium steering committee.

Those factors include not receiving enough state education aid and being forced to stay within a state-mandated tax cap that makes it difficult to raise the money schools need to provide the highest quality education, he said.

“With the symposium this year, we are gathering together people from all segments of our north country society to be able to invent ways the communities can provide additional opportunities for schools to make use of in times of diminished resources,” he said.

Keynote speaker Douglas W. Huntley, superintendent of schools in Queensbury and former Massena Central School District superintendent, said there’s a disconnect among public schools, businesses and industries.

“Even in times we have fiscal stress and distress, we have to maintain a high level of academic optimism,” he said. “The strength of providing a solution or answer to the dilemma we’re facing in public schools, in my opinion, is collaboration.”

Mr. Huntley said that even though districts have been forced to make budget cuts in recent years, programs with connections to business and industry must be created for students.

Two programs mentioned by Potsdam Central School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady are the Capstoner Project, a series of activities for high school students that connect them with workforce professionals and prepare them for careers, and the Potsdam Educational Opportunity Fund, a collaboration of parents, Clarkson University and the Northern New York Community Foundation that has raised nearly $200,000.

Mr. Huntley also mentioned the Early College High School Program that allows Queensbury students to take for-credit classes in manufacturing at nearby SUNY Adirondack community college.

Mr. Huntley said although the last two decades of education in the state have been standards-based or “one-size-fits-all,” it hasn’t served all students well. Although the perception of many in the north country is that students need to move on to a four-year degree, that perception is wrong for many students and many areas of the workforce, he said.

“When they come out of school they have incredible debt,” he said. “They’re coming out with a degree, and many of them didn’t get a degree, but they all come out with debt.”

Mr. Huntley said that north country employers are looking for soft skills such as problem solving, communication, teamwork, time management, persistence, loyalty and dedication and applied academics.

“Soft skills are very difficult to teach, especially within the four walls of a classroom,” he said. “We need to create settings in which our high school students are learning those soft skills.”

Richard K. Merchant, CEO of Northern Area Health Education Center, Canton, was part of a panel discussion that included David Norenburg, director of career services at SUNY Canton, William Murray, executive director of CITEC Manufacturing Solutions, Potsdam, and Jeffrey Rickey, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University.

“Students need to be better engaged,” Mr. Merchant said. “We need to get them the information they need and get them involved.”

Mr. Murray said that more field trips and exposure to the workforce are essential to explain to students the importance of what they’re learning in class.

“Students need to be able to talk to employers and professionals in the field that they’re considering for their future,” Mr. Norenburg said.

Despite the day’s emphasis on engaging high school students, only one class of north country students attended the symposium.

Maggie M. Whalen, an economics teacher at Heuvelton Central School, brought her class of seniors.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to experience learning about their community first-hand,” she said.

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