by Sarah McCann, IEL Consultant and Betty Hale, IEL Senior Fellow
Through its Simulated Workplace Program (SWP), West Virginia is changing the culture of career and technical education (CTE), changing the way students learn at school and gain work experience, and simultaneously helping to meet the demand for skilled labor in the state.
SWP is the brainchild of Dr. Kathy D’Antoni, the former assistant state superintendent of schools for the Division of Technical, Adult and Institutional Education at the WV Department of Education (WVDE). Through interactions with business and industry leaders, she found that employers clamored for workers who would “show up for work, be drug free and give them a full day of quality work.” D’Antoni knew that the graduating seniors’ skill sets were the correct ones, and identified what was missing: work ethic, team building, problem solving, and critical thinking. This knowledge provided the stimulus for creating the SWP—an innovative learning and workforce development approach that has been scaled across the state, sustained through multiple administrations, and been lauded nationwide.
Started in 2012, SWP teaches students not just how to do a job, but also how to work. During the first year of operation, the WVDE worked with industry, business, and education leaders to create the SWP framework: protocols and business processes aligned to real-world work environments. In 2013, six schools piloted the SWP. Based on early successes with the pilot sites, 30 additional sites were added in 2014. In 2016, state-level policy changes transformed all CTE classrooms across the state into SWP sites. By 2017, every high school student in WV had access to the SWP.
What Is a Simulated Workplace?
West Virginia’s SWP is an authentic project-based learning program, not a curriculum. It creates a successful and standardized learning environment that promotes youth voice and choice in their career and technical education. When students arrive in the morning, they “clock in.” Classes are not called “classes;” students work on projects in “companies” and learn by doing. Each company has an official-sounding name chosen by the “employees” – aka students – and is identifiable by a company uniform.
There are 12 protocols the state uses to ensure the quality of the SWP:
- Student-led Companies
- 6-s Environment (sort, straighten, shine, standardize, sustain, safety
- Company Name and Handbook
- Application/Interview Structure
- Safe Work Areas
- Company Meetings
- Formal Attendance System
- Workplace Teams
- Onsite Business Review
- Drug-free Work zone
- Project-based learning/student engagement
You can learn more about each protocol through videos available here. Below we review and discuss several of the protocols which were initially viewed as either points of contention or promise:
Drug-free Work Zone
Mandatory drug testing for participation mimics real life professional work settings. There was some concern that this protocol would limit the number of students who could or would participate. This has not been the case. Building in this protocol has motivated students to comply and contributed to both their academic attendance and to SWP success.
Project-based Learning and Student Engagement
Teachers and students alike have noticed high levels of engagement and leadership in the classroom. Students speak to the benefits of cross-pollination between their academic studies and career and technical education. One instructor said, “It was hard to give up control… but after a while they were doing it faster and better than I could and taking more responsibility; then it’s been awesome.” He found that SWP gave the students the ability to go as far as they wanted to go and gave teachers the opportunity to motivate students to go even farther. Students that played a leadership role in the SWP reported social and emotional benefits such as increased confidence and professionalism. The SWP has not only enhanced the instructional delivery of career education but has created more engaged career and technical students that own both their individual and team-member performance.
Onsite Business Review
Simulated workplaces may be located on school campuses, but they are not disconnected from the community. An external review team of members from local business and industry periodically evaluate the program. This review gives student companies the chance to shine, and to earn a West Virginia Industry Endorsement that is good for two years. The review helps ensure that the program is preparing students for success in the real world, but also builds connections between local employers and the emerging workforce. If a company/program scores less than 85%, industry officials and instructors develop an improvement plan. Once the plan has been implemented, the program is eligible for a repeat inspection.
The WVDE conducts reviews of the SWP on an ongoing and consistent basis to assess and affirm program direction and progress. Feedback is collected from all individuals associated with the SWP: SWP staff, student leaders, students, advisory council members, as well as WVDE staff.
Statewide SWP data confirms robust and positive outcomes:
- 1200+ simulated workplace companies statewide
- More than 24,000 students participating yearly
- 98.4% drug free
- 97% student satisfaction
- National and international visits to WV
- 92% of students feel their critical thinking skills have improved as a result of participating in Simulated Workplace
In addition, special studies are undertaken to identify program areas in need of improvement. In 2017, the WVDE worked with The EdVenture Group to survey SWP students to assess the program’s impact on their feelings of student empowerment. The survey was targeted to students in the six counties served by the state’s Regional Education Service Agency 2. The students felt positive about the SWP’s impact on their personal skills and leadership capacity, but were neutral about the impact on their personal life. In the future, more attention will be given to classroom best practices and activities shown to have an impact on students’ personal lives.
In addition, the Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia (REL AP) is exploring the extent to which the CTE programs provide students with the necessary credentials for projected high-demand occupations in West Virginia. The findings will be used to strengthen the alignment between the SWPs and local job training needs and vacancies. In addition, REL AP will summarize the educational requirements for projected job openings across the state and identify SWP programs that, while perhaps not aligned with local or regional labor market needs, target high-demand jobs elsewhere. The results will enable students and families to make more informed choices about course offerings and postsecondary pathways, and give schools, businesses, and the state a clearer picture of strategies for preparing a workforce ready to meet local labor market demand.
The Bottom Line
WV’s commitment to the SWP is supported by positive reviews and results from participants. Students graduate from high school career-ready, and, for many students, the SWP increased their leadership skills and self-confidence. Making informed choices and having the space to develop skills and grow comfortable with workplace expectations while still a student is one of the biggest benefits of the SWP. In West Virginia, a state where economic mobility and opportunity are limited and/or constrained, employers struggle to recruit employees with the requisite skills. This intentional connection between the education and workforce communities is preparing students and their communities for a more prosperous future.
SWP graduates consistently outpace the national average on technical assessments. When a student at a SWP site was asked, “Do you understand what the Simulated Workplace Program is trying to do?” he responded, “Oh, yes, you are not just preparing us for the next four years, you are preparing us for the next forty years.”