As Montana lawmakers continue their months-long deliberation about career and technical education for K-12 students, state superintendent Elsie Arntzen appeared at the Capitol Rotunda Wednesday to announce a related initiative taking shape in the Office of Public Education.
Using more than $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, Arntzen is hiring 10 regional career coaches to work with local school districts and businesses across the state. The new program is dubbed Montana is ready, chaired by former Public Education Board member Mary Heller. Heller told the humble gathering of lawmakers and industry representatives that the new positions will help students identify career-focused educational opportunities and develop “soft skills” needed when joining the workforce, such as working on teams and writing emails.
“Our goal is to get regional coaches out into our communities and help help our school districts so they can prepare these students,” Heller said.
Also featured in the announcement were Montana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd O’Hare and Mike Hutton with Dick Anderson Construction, both of whom spoke about the importance of informing young people about educational paths outside of the traditional four-year college degree. Hutton framed the program as beneficial to employers and students alike, addressing the challenge of finding applicants with sufficient skills while giving students the opportunity to explore paths that could lead them to a professional trade.
OPI began calling applications for its regional positions in February. After Wednesday’s event, Arntzen told the Montana Free Press that the agency has fielded more than 30 candidates and is close to filling all 10 positions. She added that the program was inspired by efforts in Alabama to hire career coaches for all public schools in the state. Asked for more details about funding for the Montana Ready program, Arntzen said the money will come from a pot of federal funds earmarked specifically for epidemic learning loss.
“If we engage students in school and engage them in their community, will they perform better in school?” She said. “They sure will, because they’re engaged.”
Arntzen emphasized that, given the one-time nature of federal funding, OPI will likely request continued financial support for the program from the legislature in 2025. To that end, Heller said the program intends for career coaches to collect data on participation and student outcomes from the start.
They’ll say that’s how many students we have, how many school districts are involved. This is the number of employers who engage from different occupational groups, and this is the number of students who have obtained vocational training registered with the Ministry of Labor [and Industry] And how did we help with that. That’s the number of students who get into dual schools, maybe a two-year college or whatever,” Heller said. “We’re going to track all of that.”
A proposal making its way through the current session — House 458, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R. Great Falls — would put the state’s superintendent in charge of certifying career coaches. HB 458 was approved by the Senate 48-1 last month and is on its way to Governor Greg Gianforte for consideration.
Heller acknowledged that the new program is similar to efforts already made by certain school districts. Among the ones you mentioned was Billings, where district officials have already hired four career coaches and partnered with local businesses, the Billings Career Center and others in Strong Outreach in Career and Technical Education (CTE) Initiative. According to Missoula County Public Schools spokesperson Barbara Frank, hiring a career coach to work with students in grades 6-12 is one goal in her district’s strategic plan, and MCPS is currently trying to secure grant funding to support such a position.
OPI’s new Career Instructors reflect the long-standing work of Montana’s seven career and technical student organizations, which represent a broad range of professions including healthcare, construction, agriculture, marketing, and hospitality. More than 10,000 students statewide participated in those organizations during the 2021-22 school year, gaining access to skill-building competitions, job shadowing, scholarship and apprenticeship opportunities. John Stiles, state director of Distributive Education Clubs of America, told MTFP that organizations like him have been involved for more than 70 years in the kind of student support and outreach that Montana Ready aims to focus on.
“This concept isn’t really a new concept,” said Stills. “It’s not a bad concept, but it’s not new. It’s inside our CTSO platform right now.”
In fact, the CTSOs are calling for the promotion of this course of their own. House Bill 382, sponsored by Rep. Greg Uplander, R. Billings, would direct $500,000 toward grants that support the CTSOs’ work, in addition to the nearly $500,000 the organizations have received from the state annually since 2013. Last month, several lawmakers argued that At least part of the financial support for CTSOs must come from business, leading to an amendment that requires organizations to secure $20,000 in private matching funds to qualify for additional aid from the state. The amendment also establishes a process for CTSOs to report their activities to state education officials. HB 382 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 97-1 this month and secured its first hearing in the Senate on Wednesday.
Elsewhere, lawmakers are looking to boost participation in commerce-based education by creating more flexibility in Montana’s Advanced Opportunity Program. The program, administered by OPI, provides nearly $4 million annually in government funding to local areas to support the development and growth of STEM and CTE courses for students in grades 6-12. House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R. Kalispell, would increase the amount of Advanced Opportunity funding that individual districts can qualify for and require that 75% of that money go towards personal expenses incurred by participating students. According to a financial memorandum prepared for the bill, participation in the program has already increased from 10 registered counties to 62 since it was first created in 2019. The Senate passed 257 on Tuesday by a bipartisan vote of 37-13 and is now heading to government. Greg Gianforte’s office.
Here is a brief summary of other proposals for career and technical education as of this week:
- House Bill 749, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, expands the scope and oversight of Digital Montana Academy, a Montana university system initiative designed to increase student access to online courses. Although HB 749 is not strictly a CTE bill, it broadens the Academy’s focus to include coursework that includes experiential learning and career readiness. It also requires the Academy Board to report the number of CTE credits and industry credentials earned by participating students along with other information you provide to the legislature’s provisional education committees. HB 749 passed the House of Representatives 96-3 and a Senate committee hearing is scheduled for Friday.
- House 944, sponsored by Rep. Paul Tous of De Havre, will allocate $1.1 million toward establishing new CTE partnerships between two-year colleges and public school districts. The pilot program will be administered by the Office of the Commissioner for Higher Education, with state-supported grants designed to help universities enhance CTE programming and support high school students seeking dual enrollment credits. Participating colleges and schools will be required to provide matching funds, along with a plan to maintain the new programs over the long term once scholarship funding ends. HB 944 passed the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support and a Senate preliminary committee hearing is scheduled for April 21.
- House Bill 245, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, would add nearly three dozen skill-based occupations to the list of eligible jobs for a trade-and-training-based tax credit program. Credits—a government effort to stimulate workforce development—can be claimed by employers who provide on-the-job training to employees in certain specialized areas, up to $2,000 annually per eligible employee. Fenton’s proposal also states that credits can be granted for professions not included in the law. On April 5, HB 245 passed its primary vote on the Senate floor, 42-8.
- Senate Bill 444, sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, would implement certain requirements for work-based learning programs, including providing written descriptions of how to supervise student activities on the job and periodically assess whether the student learns from those activities. The bill is designed to ensure that these programs are structured and beneficial for participating students. SB 444 received unanimous approval from the full House of Representatives during a preliminary voting session on Wednesday.
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