When you picture high school, generally a barrage of John Hughes movies come flooding in: cheerleading, football games, debate club, prom, pep rallies. And when I made the switch from teaching middle school to high school, those events were the ones I expected to see. So imagine my surprise when during the second week of school we had a Skills USA kick off that featured the superintendent and a lot of fanfare surrounding something I had never heard of before. But within moments of the kickoff I was not only in, but wanted to shout from the rooftops what a unique experience it is.
I recently spoke with SkillsRI’s state director Joshua Klemp who succinctly described the program. “SkillsUSA is a professional organization designed to be run by students for their own growth and benefit.” In education we frequently hear that students need to take ownership of their education, and Skills USA, in partnership with school educators, has been helping them do that for more than 55 years.
Nationally SkillsUSA has more than 400,000 members from every state in the nation, as well as Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, and 7,000 of those members — high school, middle school and college students — are right here in RI. The students participate in program activities, leadership workshops and even competitions on a state and national level. RI has four middle schools, 12 high schools and six colleges in their member directory. There are schools that you would expect to see on this list: Providence Career and Technical Academy, William M. Davies Jr. Career and Technical High School, ChariohoTECH, New England Institute of Technology and Johnson and Wales. Then there are the schools that might take you by surprise: Delsesto Middle School, Roger Williams Middle School, Beacon Charter High School for the Arts, Westerly High School and Rhode Island College. And this is just a partial list! In little Rhody, this immense undertaking is overseen by Klemp, who has seen firsthand the growth RI students have made when it comes to this skills competition. “SkillsUSA members develop into well-rounded and employable people with technical and academic skills that will help them have a successful career.”
When it comes to the competitions, these students compete on a statewide level and then a national level under the support and guidance of their teachers in all sorts of categories, from HVAC to architectural design, restaurant service to community service. There are competitions for American Spirit, Career Pathways for Arts and Communication, Career Pathways for Industrial and Engineering, Cosmetology, Robotics, T-Shirt Design and Speeches. The list is extensive, and if you’re ever fortunate enough to attend the statewide ceremony in the spring, you’ll see firsthand how it builds community as students work with their teachers on something outside of the traditional classroom setting. Teachers will volunteer to listen to speeches, lend advice and cheer on their students. The evening is heavy on student presentations, with a very supportive crowd. And then of course there’s Klemp, who takes the stage in his humble manner to the screams and accolades usually reserved for a rock star. The students love him, and it’s clear to see why. In a society where students are consistently being told that they don’t add up to standardized test scores, or that they don’t understand hard work, respect or dedication, SkillsUSA is there to celebrate these traits in our students. And if we’re talking about a competition, how does a state as small as RI compare to the nation? Rhode Island has been recognized as the Gold Standard of Excellence within SkillsUSA. And our students? In the national competition last June, 40 RI students placed in the top 10. And out of that 40, there were 17 medalists, with PCTA taking the gold nationally for community service. (It has to be noted that PCTA also achieved the Gold State Chapter of Distinction.) In a world rife with reality television stars receiving accolades for doing nothing of any substantial worth, it is refreshing to see important values like community service being not only celebrated, but that students from our state are at the gold standard for others to emulate.
As educators we frequently are told that our students don’t measure up. That teachers can get raises when test scores rise, that education is not preparing students for the future. Think about it: How many times have you seen that meme on Facebook that applauds schools for getting students ready for “pythagorean theorem” season? In a time where so many people lament the state of education (and as an educator I could go on about that subject forever, but I have essays to grade so I can’t) isn’t it exhilarating to hear about an organization that does takes those life skills in mind? I love teaching in a school that prepares students for life after high school, whether that path takes them to college or the workforce. Using literature to illustrate leadership skills and community building can only take you so far. I’m so grateful SkillsUSA is around to make those lessons ever more tangible.