Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
When the Russell Independent school district opens the doors of its schools for community tours once a year, the benefits aren’t just linear. The positives branch off in all directions.
Just ask Shelby Huddleston, a Russell High School senior who not only got Laura Timberlake’s business card, but an invitation to shadow her in her job as chief operating officer of Big Sandy Superstores, a three-state home-furnishings company. She also got some advice from the executive about her future business studies at Morehead State University.
PHOTO: Russell High School Assistant Principal Dave Caniff and the tour group he is leading through the school pause in a hallway for an impromptu discussion. From left, Caniff; Vicki McGinnis, Russell Education Endowment Foundation vice president; businessman John Norman; Steve Woodburn, a dean at Ashland Community and Technical College; and Norman’s wife, Jody, a Russell alumna.
Huddleston was part of a group of students who gathered with tour participants – Timberlake among them – in the high school library to share their views of the school, from academics and athletics to extracurriculars and caring teachers. District administrators also explained their job duties.
But for Timberlake, the interaction with students “is the main reason we do these things. In our community especially, we want to find a way to bridge that gap and to make sure that our kids are actually led down a workforce path that makes sense, where there’s opportunities.”
The group tours of Russell Independent’s four schools are called Principal for a Day, which is a bit of a misnomer, since the parents, alumni, businesspeople and other community members who take advantage of the tours learn much more than they could by simply sitting in the principal’s chair.
Sportswear company owner John Norman dropped in on a calculus class during his walk-through, laughingly confessing afterward, “I couldn’t even comprehend what he was trying to teach.”
But Norman’s tour group, led by Assistant Principal Dave Caniff, also picked up all sorts of information as they strolled the high school’s hallways. Passing by the French teacher’s room, Caniff outlined the school’s foreign language offerings. Bumping into a teacher who is the school’s academic team coach led to a conversation about the team’s performance at this year’s Governor’s Cup, and news that a team member won a scholarship to Vanderbilt University.
That group also learned about the credit recovery program, the use of drug dogs in locker searches, the reasons for banning students’ use of electronic devices from some areas of the building, the relationship with the area technology center next door and the opportunities it offers, how much time students have between classes – and even the football team’s prospects for next season.
Steve Woodburn, dean of students and enrollment management at Ashland Community and Technical College, was among those following Caniff. “We’re sometimes the next step for many of these students,” he said. “We want to provide opportunities for students. We think if we strengthen relationships between the local college and the high school, those opportunities are even going to be greater.”
This was the second year for the program, a joint venture between the district and its education foundation, whose president, Khristy Kahrig, said showing community members “how great our school is” encourages them to help out. Local bank branch manager Lisa Crisp, for example, toured the high school this year, but walked through the middle school last year.
“Community members need to see what’s going on in the school,” said Crisp, whose daughter is a 2012 graduate. “These kids are our future workforce. It’s nice to be connected, to offer our help and maybe these kids want to (job) shadow.”
Timberlake said she also told administrators that business leaders can help students get real-world views of the career paths that interest them through opportunities like job shadowing.
David Willey, managing partner at Texas Roadhouse in Ashland, said two of his employees are Russell students, as are his children. He said he enjoyed seeing “what they do every day and what the kids’ experience is.”
At the same time, said Russell Independent school board Chairman Terry Vest, the day gives the district a chance to learn what local employers need for their workforce. “We’re depending on them with their knowledge of the scope of their individual businesses … what they will be requiring,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for people in our community to come in and to see how we educate these kids, what programs these young folks are involved in,” agreed board member Sean Whitt. “We get feedback from these employers as to ways they think we can improve.”
Executives of two local hospitals took the tour last year and Vest and Whitt pointed out that the hospitals are helping with the development of a health sciences lab, one of them donating surplus equipment.
“(Business leaders) are getting to see what we’re teaching our students and saying, ‘Can we partner with you?’” Vest said.
Superintendent Sean Horne said the feedback from community and business people is one of the most important aspects of the program. Input gained last year prompted discussions about expanding work co-op opportunities for students, and plans for more health sciences offerings through the area tech center, located on Russell’s campus.