"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Ann Kerman, executive director of the Santa Clarita Valley School & Business Alliance. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: What is the SCV School & Business Alliance?
Kerman: The alliance is a nonprofit (agency) in this community whose mission is to connect students with their future. We're basically an intermediary agency that is the catalyst to make change happen.
Signal: It sounds like the School & Business Alliance does more than just one job-shadow day every year.
Kerman: That's absolutely true. Groundhog Job Shadow (Day) is one of our very fun events; it's every Feb. 2, on Groundhog Day, and it's really a kickoff for year-long job shadowing that we do for high schools in the Santa Clarita Valley.
At any point in time, any day of the week, you'll see students in this valley job-shadowing local businesses and getting a glimpse of what they might want to do when they grow up.
Signal: What about the rest of the year? How does the School & Business Alliance make the connection the rest of the year between kids and careers?
Kerman: What we're doing throughout the year is, we are working with teachers to help bring in speakers in their classrooms; we're connecting students with mentors; we're developing internships; and we're really trying to build a system that's going to help students progress from elementary, junior high, high school into what may be their future, whether it be college or a career.
I think one of our biggest challenges is really changing a system that is trying to prepare all students for college when the reality is, many students may start but not finish, and many may not even go there from high school. We've got to give them different options.
Signal: Why can't kids just go to school and study their courses and figure out what they like, and then go on and pursue that as a career?
Kerman: Well they could; they could do exactly what you and I did when we were going to school. If you speak to a lot of people, they may not necessarily be in the career that is what they want to do. They may end up spending lots of time changing majors in college and it costs a lot of money to do that, trying to make those discoveries when they could do that a lot sooner. It's really about connecting a student with their passion.
How do you make school relevant so they even care about being there? How do you make math something that they can connect to the real world? Those are the kinds of things that we're trying to do that really help kids make the connection with why school is important, and also connect them with some goal that they might have so that they can move down that stream.
Signal: How long have you been doing this?
Kerman: Six and a half years.
Signal: It that how long the School & Business Alliance has been around?
Kerman: Actually the alliance came about a little bit before that. It was a committee of the (SCV) Chamber (of Commerce) back in the mid å90s when groups of business people were approaching the schools, saying they were really having a hard time finding qualified students coming out of school, and the schools needed to do something. So a committee met for many years until they actually got to the point where they were on the same wavelength as President Clinton and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, and they were able to bring a grant into the Santa Clarita Valley. That created the alliance.
Signal: What were the local businesses looking for? Unskilled labor coming out of high school?
Kerman: Not that so much; they were finding the students who were coming out of school were not prepared with what we might call the "soft skills" things like being able to communicate, showing up to work on time, being a team player, being a good communicator. Those were not necessarily the skills that are being taught in school. But when we connect students with the workplace, they're now seeing that there are other things that are going to be necessary for them to succeed.
Signal: Since the School & Business Alliance has been around, have businesses been "hiring locally" more than in the past?
Kerman: Six years is still a short amount of time, because from the initial group (of students), they still haven't necessarily some of them might have finished school but what we we're seeing is, yes, there are a lot more local hires. The kids who are participating in School-to-Career activities actually have a higher GPA, there's a higher graduation rate, and all in all, they tend to be a lot more on track with the things that are going to make them successful.
Signal: You mentioned a big grant a few years ago. Has it run out?
Kerman: Oh it has, it has. So a couple years ago the alliance became its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and we joined many other of the nonprofit agencies in town that had to beg, borrow and steal, scrape by, to continue to do the work that we do.
Signal: Do you hold fund-raisers?
Kerman: We actually do fund-raisers; in fact we have a really fun one that will be coming up April Fools Day: Monopoly Mania. We did this last year, where local businesses in town sponsored the squares on the board. We even have Andy Gump once again, which has bought Boardwalk, and other companies will do the same thing. You'll come and play an evening of Monopoly. It's very high-chique Monopoly.
Signal: It's doubtful that all the Monopoly money in the Santa Clarita Valley is enough to fund you, so does most of your money come from grants?
Kerman: The bulk of the money comes from both the Hart High School District and (College of the Canyons). They see a huge importance for the work that we are doing, so we have a couple of contracts with them.
We also have an agreement with the (Santa Clarita Valley) Auto Dealers Association. We're doing a program for them right now to help to connect them to high school students who may want to pursue a career in the auto industry.
Signal: How does it work? Do you go to the auto dealers and put together a program?
Kerman: Well, for example, there are maybe 500 students at any given point in time who are in auto classes in this community.
Signal: We still have auto shop in school?
Kerman: We still have auto shop. And what is particularly interesting is that the students don't seem to know how to get hired into the local dealerships. So what we do with this program is, they start with job-shadowing, where they may visit six different aspects of a dealership, from the technicians to the insurance and sales department, finance, parts, all the different aspects, and find an area that they're interested in. The dealer really gets to know the student and sees if this is going to be a hard worker, somebody who is going to look out for them. Then they will move into an internship.
This very year we've had a couple students who have been sponsored by the dealers, and the dealers are now paying tens of thousands of dollars for those students to get their certification and training. So it's really a win-win. You're keeping local kids here; they're moving into careers they want to do, and they wouldn't have had this connection otherwise.
Signal: You mentioned communication skills. How do they learn that through this program?
Kerman: A lot of it is just having an adult mentor or an adult outside of another caring adult in the community who may, in a work situation, tell them it's important. We also prepare the students before job-shadowing with different seminars, and we let them know that these are the kind of things that are going to be important.
They have their job-shadow handbook, they're coached by the teachers in the school, and the more they hear that message, it's coming across.
Signal: How are kids selected for these programs?
Kerman: Any student can participate. There is absolutely no requirement. It's open to all students, from the straight-A to the average student to students maybe with special abilities. They apply, and if we find a connection for them, they may be interested in a certain career and if we have that, we match that up for them.
Signal: Any business in the valley can participate?
Kerman: Any business.
Signal: What is the relationship between the alliance and the Hart District? Your office is actually in the Hart District office, right?
Kerman: That's right.
Signal: But you're separate?
Kerman: The Hart district contracts with the alliance to oversee what they call "career technical education programs," so it's a really subcontract situation. We're there basically operating School-to-Career programs instead of them having to have an entire division of certificated people who would do that.
Signal: How does what you do differ from ROP (Regional Occupational Program)?
Kerman: ROP is just a part of School-to-Career. It's the actual occupational classes in a particular area. The whole career preparation is much broader than that; it's actual career-technical classes; it may be the preparation for the interviews; it's putting together an education program of all the different aspects of, how are you going to get from high school to that career?
Signal: Is ROP completely separate?
Kerman: ROP is part of the Hart School District, and the alliance is a separate nonprofit.
Signal: A lot of what is taught in the local schools is mandated out of Sacramento and Washington
Signal: Are Sacramento and Washington placing the right emphasis on a college track versus a career track?
Kerman: I personally think that they're doing a great disservice for students as a whole. If you look at the graduation rates of a four-year university degree, it's no different today than it was 20 years ago: We're still talking about 20 percent of the population is going to end up with a four-year degree. So what are you really doing to all the other students?
There is a great disconnect with preparing kids for even if they are going to college right out (of high school), many of them need to earn their way through college. We're not really giving them an opportunity to have basic skills where they can get good entry-level jobs and maybe work their way through college or work their way into a career.
We may talk about 80 percent of the students in the Hart District are going to college; the real question is, how many of them are completing? The numbers are not as bright as you might think.
Signal: What is the answer? More money for more different kinds of programs in the high schools?
Kerman: I think that it's not a question of more money; it's more a question of a different allocation of resources. Until some of the federal requirements can change, the schools have mandates that they must follow (under) No Child Left Behind, they must do all this testing and what's happening in a lot districts across the country is, because the language arts and math are critical, they are dropping electives off the radar screen.
That would be a very dangerous thing for us to do in this community. Because you've got to give students the opportunity to experiment with other things that might be of interest and really create that "whole person," kind of like that renaissance person, and it can't be if it's strictly academic courses.
Signal: How effectively do you think the alliance plugs the gap for those who aren't college-bound?
Kerman: If I could answer that question in a kind of a round-about way: One of the things that the alliance is, is we are an intermediary, and we are a catalyst to create change. One of the things that we're doing right now is, we are bringing together all of the districts, the college, the three elementary districts, the high school district, and we're having this kind of dialogue, because unless we can really change some of the infrastructure here, things are not going to change.
(Non-college-bound) students really don't have a lot of options unless we can really persist at keeping these career-technical classes open. You spoke about the auto shops; one auto shop closed last year and the issue came up in the community, and the shop reopened. The new high schools are being built without some of this career-technical facility, and it's something that is going to be a problem.
I think the community needs to know that it's not career-technical or an academic track; it should be career-technical with a high emphasis with very strong academics and very strong technical skills.
Signal: What structural changes to the education system in our valley are needed?
Kerman: A lot of it is really, we're talking about "seamless transitions" so that students can move along from one system to the next, and for them it will feel seamless. But the system will have built-in mechanisms that will allow them to move on with maybe duplicating courses. That has been an issue for high school students who may have taken some advanced courses at the high school level and they get to college and they have to retake some of those courses. So we have been working with the college to see if we could work out things like credit by examination let a student test out of some of these courses or perhaps other ways they could either get credit or they could test up to that next level.
Signal: You mentioned that a lot of students who go to four-year universities don't graduate. Why is that? What kinds of tools do they need at the high school or community college level that would equip them to see it through?
Kerman: I think part of it is the earlier discussion we had about having students really understand why they are going to college: Are you going there because your mom and dad said you're going? Or are you going because you want to be a news reporter? And if you're a news reporter, you need this set of skills, and you will get it at this particular institution.
Those are the things that I don't believe are happening as well as they could be. If every student really knew what their course was and they had a plan to get there, I think you would see a much higher incidence of graduation rates.
Signal: What kind of feedback have you gotten from students who've gone through your programs?
Kerman: Much of it is anecdotal, but it's the kind of thing like, "Wow, I'm so excited that I had that job-shadow, because that's what changed it for me." It's really those kind of stories that we hear from students that is was that job-shadow or that internship that really turned on the light and gave them a direction that they might not ordinarily have had.
Signal: Have you heard kids say they thought they knew what career they wanted to pursue, but then they job-shadowed or took a look at it and decided, no way?
Kerman: Absolutely. And that's good, too. We've heard that a lot when we put students at maybe a veterinarian and they thought they wanted to do it, and it all changes.
Signal: Are there particular types of businesses or industries that you'd like to see get involved with the alliance?
Kerman: Probably the hardest industry that we have had success in breaking into has been the entertainment industry. If you ask any eighth-grade student in this valley, they want to be an actor or they want to be a dancer or something in the entertainment field. That has probably been one of the hardest areas to break into, just because it's difficult, for liability reasons, to put a student on a set. But we'll do what we can to make those things happen in other ways.
Signal: Who makes the decisions about the direction the alliance will go?
Kerman: We have a board of directions. This year our chair is Marc Emmer. Marc is a tremendous individual who comes from business. (He) is a management consultant. He's really taking us in some new directions. We'll shortly have elections again, and I have a feeling Marc will be on for another year, and I'm thrilled about that.
Signal: Board members come from the business community? Do they also come from education?
Kerman: Both. Our charter says that we need to have a 40-60 split; it can be in either direction, but were equally represented by the school districts and the business community, the city, and other organizations in this valley. Actually each of the school districts has a seat on the board, and they are all assistant superintendents or higher.
Signal: What are some of the organizations you work with? You've got a relationship with the Valley Industrial Association, right?
Kerman: A very strong relationship with them, and we work with the chamber; we work with Junior Achievement; we work with any and all organizations that may have a similar mission.
Signal: You mentioned being in the same boat with other nonprofits; you are the incoming chair of the Nonprofit Leaders Council. What is that?
Kerman: I am. And that's really exciting. The Nonprofit Leaders Council is a group of like-minded executive directors from Santa Clarita nonprofits who meet to really strengthen our position in the community as a sector.
I think that people don't realize what a strong sector the nonprofit world is, especially here in Santa Clarita. We have over 150 nonprofits that do amazing work, and we're actually viable economic force ... in terms of the money that is brought into this community from grants and other funding sources, foundations, etc.; the people that we hire and the people that we serve.
One of the goals that I have as incoming co-chair this year is really to change the perception of nonprofits. Many of us who are executive directors are well-educated; many of us have graduate degrees; many of us come from business; and we do this work because we have a passion for it. But we're also very much like many of our cohorts who are in the business community, and often I don't know that we're necessarily considered at that same level.
Signal: Many people think of a nonprofit as somebody with their hand out.
Kerman: They do. And really most of my dialogue with businesses and other folks in the community is just about the work we are doing. The fund-raising is very secondary. I'm much more interested in getting people involved and people on board.
This is a community where we have it's probably one of the most exciting communities to work in, because it's small and everyone knows each other. But there are so many opportunities for people to get involved, and it seems that it's only the same people who get involved over and over again. There are so many more that I would personally like to get involved and bring into the mix.
Signal: That's the $64,000 question: How do you tap into new money and get new volunteers to go places you haven't gone before?
Kerman: You just keep trying.
Signal: What's the purpose of bringing the nonprofit leaders together?
Kerman: One of the things that's really important for us as a sector is the networking, just like any other business entity. We network, and we often find out during the networking that we have similar goals and objectives.
Maybe there is somebody who may be with the homeless shelter who is serving the same client that Single Mothers Outreach is serving, and maybe they also have a child who is being served by another agency. So sometimes you're serving the same group of people, and just being aware of what each other does can really be an economy of scale. You can end up creating some really exciting things.
Signal: What are the biggest obstacles right now for nonprofits in general or the alliance in particular?
Kerman: You mentioned money, and that's huge for everybody. The economy is really at a very scary time for many of us. A lot of agencies that were funded by foundations are finding that those moneys are drying up and the federal and state dollars are really at risk. So for many of us, we have scaled back. We have become really lean and mean.
The alliance used to have four full-time paid staff, and now there is one and a half of us. It doesn't mean you do any less; you do just as much as if not more, but you do it differently. You do it in a smarter way and more efficiently.
I would say that probably money is a big area, but the other thing is just communication. If we can find ways that we can get our messages out more efficiently and more effectively, I think it would be huge.
Signal: Do you have kids in school?
Kerman: I have three kids. Two are in college and one is a junior in high school. She actually has a internship with Washington Mutual that I think has changed her life.
Signal: How so?
Kerman: She didn't realize how good she might be at doing something different. This was a young lady who was all about sports and competitive basketball, and now she's learning all about finance and the banking industry, and she's finding she's good at it and she likes it, and it could be another option for her.
Signal: Isn't you husband a counselor in the Hart District?
Kerman: He is.
Signal: So it's an all-education-all-the-time family.
Kerman: It is. I'm in school, my husband's in school and the kids are in school.
Signal: How do you deal with a teenager?
Kerman: It's rough. You take one day at a time. You have to just smile a lot and have a lot of humor.
Signal: Any parting thoughts?
Kerman: I would just like to let the community know (to) get involved, find a nonprofit that you have a passion for, and call one of us up. Because we definitely will have something for you to do.
Signal: How do people get in touch with you?
Kerman: For the alliance, we're on a Web site, www.scvalliance.org, or through the Hart District, 259-0033 ext. 776.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.