With a new school year comes a new learning program in the Independence School District designed to prepare high schoolers for a 21st century economy.

The Ford Next Generation Learning Initiative debuts this 2014-15 school year for all ninth graders with the “Freshman Academy.” The mission is to create a new generation of young people ready to compete in a dynamic/technology-driven economy by making all of them literate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines and instill 21st century job skills. This new Freshman Academy serves as a starting point for future career academies planned to be offered at all three Independence high schools in the following 2015-16 school year. The FNG Initiative is not a voluntary program but is part of the district’s freshman curriculum, Assistant Superintendent Brad MacLaughlin has said. “This (Freshman Academy) will strengthen the baseline.” Independence is the only district in Missouri to utilize the program.

“Teachers have been told this for the past decade or so,” said English teacher Amy Fuhr about the need to prepare students for a 21st century economy, “but it is not always easy to implement. By partnering with area businesses, teachers are able to see what technology skills are being used in today’s job market.”

“Good-paying, sustainable jobs are going wasted,” FNG consultant Carl Leiterman said late last year at an Independence Chamber of Commerce meeting.

 Speaking last month at the Independence Council for Economic Development Annual Meeting, economist Chris Keuhl said many people in today’s national economy simply lack the training and skills to meet the qualifications of a specialized job opening that offers a decent salary.

So far the district has partnered up with local engineering firm Burns and McDonnell, Bayer Crop Science, architectural firm Hollis + Miller and Alliant Techsystems (Lake City Ammunition Division) to help implement the new career preparation program. This alliance allows freshman teachers to emphasize 21st century skills in their instruction, such as critical thinking, collaboration and information technology. More business partnerships will be added in the future as the program expands to 10th through 12th grades next school year.

“Our first Career Academy, Engineering, will be offered to sophomores, juniors and seniors in the fall of 2015,” said Director of Communications Nancy Lewis. “Our goal is to have five academies in place at each high school by the 2019-20 school year. Additional academies will be chosen each year between now and 2019.”

The Independence Chamber of Commerce previously pointed out this program will help keep major employers in the area and let them expand.

Besides just transforming a ninth grade core classroom to be more STEM-intensive, the Academy will incorporate other activities to help students decide what they want to pursue after high school graduation. In fact, during the next six to nine months of the upcoming school year, each freshman student will devise a specific plan of what they want to accomplish in the next ten years.

“We can better prepare our students to meet those job demands by helping them see the value in their high school education through college visits, career fairs, and a new FOCUS curriculum,” Fuhr said. The FOCUS curriculum is also being implemented this year in the district. Similar to the district’s Accelerated Reader program with fiction books, it instead features electronic non-fiction reading material that aligns with state learning standards.

“It's (the Freshman Academy) going to provide the teachers more opportunities to teach relevant material, as well as focus on catching those students who might normally fall through the cracks academically,” said Industrial Technology teacher Aaron Smith.

In order to prepare for the new Freshman Academy curriculum, Independence high school teachers attended “externships” for one week last month at the partnering companies.

Not only are students encouraged to pursue a post-secondary education with the Initiative, but it also gives them the option to enroll in a university or technical school or immediately begin a position at one of the program’s partnered companies. “There are multiple exit points with this program,” McLaughlin has said. He said that it is unrealistic for every student in the district to obtain a college degree, and he noted that 23 to 28 percent of people who are currently unemployed already have degrees.

“The benefit of focusing on our students their first year in high school, teaching them 21st century skills, and also providing a road-map, (our 10-year plan) that they develop will be a great asset to them in the future,” said Smith.