Fifty-three percent of the Los Angeles workforce has deficient literacy skills. Los Angeles has the highest percentage of undereducated adults in the United States. Approximately one quarter of the population of the Valley does not have a high school diploma. These statistics recently published by Boston-based, Northeastern University and cited in a report by the city of Los Angeles Workforce Investment Board, attest to the need for change in the area’s educational system. While the current outlook looks grim, the Valley has a dedicated cadre of forward thinking individuals who are devoted to changing things. Many people attribute the Valley’s weak labor pool to the K-12 schools’ growing emphasis on college preparation. The logic follows that certain students are not inclined to pursue the college route, and since courses are directed toward that end, disenfranchised students lose interest and drop out. Students, who in the past learned practical skills in high school vocational courses that have been discontinued at many schools, find high school having few programs to hold their interest. Jack Kyser, senior vice-president and chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Center, believes that the de-emphasis on learning a trade leads to students missing out on solid blue-collar professions. “I think we need a different attitude toward education in the K-12 system. The industrial arts are no longer offered in our high schools. Not everyone goes to college. When I went to high school, you had the college prep crowd and the non-college bound students who could take drafting, auto shop, wood shop, metal shop, or home economics. Now the schools are under such fiscal stress that they don’t offer that that,” Kyser said. “People forget that you need basic things like electricians, plumbers, appliance repairmen and mechanics.” E. Kenn Phillips, the director of education and workforce investment for the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, spends his days working to get the business community involved with local schools. Among other tasks, Phillips helms a partnership with Washington Mutual and the local high schools that aims to train kids for the business world early. “The pilot project with Washington Mutual involves our business success academy. It takes 100 students per day and our professional trainers train high school students from Sylmar High, San Fernando High, Sun Valley Polytechnic High and Van Nuys High,” Phillips said. “For eight consecutive weeks, students work on a student service project and incorporate those skills. When they finish the project, they bring them back to the business people, in this case Washington Mutual. and they share with them how they incorporated those skills into the projects.” Phillips maintains that response data from these projects indicated that students have enjoyed their experiences and found them beneficial. Business collaboration Donna Smith, the field deputy for Jon Lauritzen, the LAUSD board of education representative for District 1, has worked in education her entire life, serving as the principal of Chatsworth High School before assuming her current position. Smith believes that collaborations with businesses, schools and parents are vital to improving the work force. “It’s really a matter of enhancing what we already do. It’s opening up the horizons the higher you go, that’s where the partnerships come in, where kids work with businesses while they’re in school, or mentors that come in and work with kids,” Smith said. “You can start this in the lower grades. We need to bring everyone together. We aren’t separate units. We have to work together to hold kids to standards, making people accountable for the work they do.” Smith acknowledges the dearth of industrial arts in the local high schools but points out that the community colleges offer vocational courses. Furthermore, programs exist for high school students to take courses at the colleges and simultaneously receive college and high school credit. Bob Collins has a difficult job the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified District for district one, an area that spans the west Valley and portions of the east Valley, Collins estimates the district’s drop out ratio hovers just below 25 percent. Accordingly, Collins realizes how imperative it is for the district to upgrade its curriculum. “We’re in desperate need to update the career tech programs that the schools currently have. Our current programs are insufficient to what the Valley needs, so we’re in the process of revamping them in a big way,” Collins said. “That shop equipment from 10, 15, or even 20 years ago is outdated and no longer usable for kids. They need to be hands on with the most updated equipment, to address the industries that we have today.” Updating technology Collins asserts that the district is looking at putting in machinery and robotics programs equipped with the most current technology. He also mentions that the district is setting up media academies in the schools to keep future entertainment jobs in the Valley from moving elsewhere. Furthermore, he mentions talks that the district has had to train students for the many nursing and health programs that go understaffed. Collins points out that a new high school is in plans to be built on-site at the West Valley Occupational Center. The high school will allow students to receive vocational training with qualified teachers from the occupational center, as well as allow them to take college preparatory courses. “We’re on the right track but we need the support of business and legislation to provide us with the means we had 50 years ago. The key to reducing the drop out rate and improving the schools is to have programs for students that will attract them and interest them. We want to insure that every high school has that one thing that will keep students in the classroom,” Collins said.