Success Story: West-MEC Finds ‘Sweet Spot’ in
Communicating with Member District Counselors

Submitted by Marilynn Babyar and Sparta Klees, Counselor Liasons

Western Maricopa Education Center (West-MEC) opened its doors in 2002, and today it serves more than 25,000 students from 40 high schools. Twelve public school districts belong to West-MEC, from the Paradise Valley Unified School District in the East Valley, to the Buckeye Union High School District in the Southwest Valley, and to the Deer Valley Unified School District in the Northwest Valley. West-MEC’s mission is to “prepare students today for tomorrow’s careers.” Because of current tough economic conditions and a changing globalized economy, this is a difficult task.

We at West-MEC eagerly anticipate an economic rebound and are making every effort to train our students, the future workforce, as they begin their careers in a climate of increased competition in jobs we may not yet be able to define. Our country and state’s futures depend on having a well-trained workforce, prepared to thrive in every aspect. A recent West-MEC survey of projected business needs brings good news. Even with the current economic uncertainty, 55% of survey respondents plan to expand their businesses between 2011 and 2016. The respondents consisted primarily of small business owners (63%) while 11% were larger employers with more than 4,000 employees. This news bodes well for young people preparing to enter the work force. The needs assessment also helps West-MEC plan appropriate programs for meeting industry needs and producing highly trained and skilled workers in the next five years. For instance, a new Aviation Technology Program, designed to prepare young people to become airframe, power plant, or air transportation technicians, will open in the fall of 2011. The program is housed at the Glendale Municipal Airport, and the facility is outfitted with state of the art equipment.

West-MEC delivers its Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses in two ways. First, the West-MEC Satellite Programs are enhanced CTE programs offered at member district campuses and integrated into the campus/district schedule. Courses such as accounting, graphic design, media productions or culinary arts are generally well known by students, parents, and counselors at each campus. Secondly, West-MEC delivers CTE programs via Central Programs, offered at post-secondary institutions, industry facilities, or in facilities operated by West-MEC. These programs are more intensive and do not follow a typical school schedule. West-MEC’s seven Central Programs – Automotive Collision, Automotive Technology, Aviation Technology, Cosmetology, Dental Assisting, Emergency Medical Technician, Fire Science and Medium Heavy Diesel Technology- afford students the opportunity to earn not only high school credits, but also industry certification, college credits and internships. Since West-MEC spans an area of almost 4,300 square miles, it is impossible to build Central Program facilities near every one of its 40 high schools; therefore, students, parents and counselors may not be as familiar with Central Programs as they are with local satellite programs.

While the district can celebrate achievements such as a 97.8 graduation rate for students who take at least one of the hundreds of CTE courses offered, or waiting lists for its Central Programs, or world-class facilities, challenges remain. One of those challenges is that the high school counselors and career center specialists from the 40 member high schools are not necessarily familiar with all that West-MEC Central Programs have to offer, and, consequently, they are not necessarily confident in educating their school communities about these educational options. We conduct large, district-wide counselor information meetings in the fall of each year, and we review program updates. In order to meet the counselors’ needs for more detailed information and give them a “feel” for each facility, we decided to organize multiple tours and information sessions at our various West-MEC sites. The sessions were scheduled as much as possible prior to or at registration time so that counselors could better educate their students and parents of opportunities in West-MEC Central Programs. We asked high schools to send at least one counselor representative to each session, and many schools sent several representatives. Thus every school and district had the opportunity to tour the Cosmetology, Dental Assisting, Emergency Medical Technician, Fire Science, Medium Heavy Diesel, and Aviation Technology programs.

Our West-MEC Central Programs operate in partnership with community colleges and industry. As a result, grading scales, attendance policies, requirements for uniforms, or even procedures for accommodating students with disabilities and 504 plans need much clarification because they are markedly different from those in a typical public high school. We gave in-depth information at each session, and we used the same template so that our information would be consistent from one presentation to the next. When we showed textbooks used in each program, participants could see for themselves that Cosmetology requires not only an affinity for working with hair, skin and nails, but also skills in biology, anatomy and chemistry; at Diesel, the textbooks require applied algebra skills, physics and chemistry. Best of all, we invited our instructors and program specialists to address the counselors directly. Each session provided a tour of the facility, and, in some cases, the counselors could see their own students engaged in practicing a career specific skill. We talked about the latest industry trends and career prospects for our graduates, and we left ample time for questions. At times we offer the same program, e.g., Emergency Medical Technician, in two locations – one at Glendale Community College and one at Estrella Mountain Community College. In those cases, we offered information sessions and tours at each location as the instructional team and the facility itself could be quite different from one location to the next, and we wanted the counselors to be fully informed about both.

As our sessions progressed, we noticed that counselors were signing up promptly, and we began to see familiar faces in our groups. It seemed that once the counselors experienced one information session and realized the value of it, they wanted to participate in all the rest. Needless to say, we are gratified by this response. An unintended but welcomed result of our information sessions is that the word spread and other education professionals requested a spot. Therefore, we began to include Career and Technical Local Directors, Special Education staff and Arizona Department of Education officials in our informational tours.

As the chart below shows, the overall results of our information sessions and tours are terrific. The majority of participants stated they would “recommend the workshop to a colleague.” Evidently, this was a successful intervention that we, West-MEC counselor liaisons, provided to our member district counselors and other colleagues to give them even more tools in their work with students. We definitely plan to continue our information sessions and make them even better by incorporating constructive feedback. The registration process is now complete for 2011-12, and we have received an increased number of applications for our Central Programs. From 847 student applications submitted for the 2010-11 school year, we increased to 910 applications for the 2011-12 school year. Clearly, the counselors and career center specialists feel more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about our West-MEC programs, and they were effective in communicating this to their students. An increase in student applications is only part of our success story; we will continue to track the “rest of the story” at regular intervals by measuring student success as evidenced by program completion rates and employment in the related career fields.