LET’S TALK WITH . . . . . MARTHA JONES

An innovative springboard from school to workforce

brantin@thestate.comJune 29, 2014 

Richland 2 officials joined others in the community recently for the official groundbreaking of the Richland Two Institute of Innovation.

The 180,000-square-foot facility will place added emphasis on preparing students for the workforce, district officials say. It is set to open in 2016 on the 31-acre tract near PLEX Indoor Sports in the Village at Sandhill in Northeast Richland.

Martha Jones, the district’s director of strategic partnerships, talked recently about the vision for the center and the hopes for students who study there.

What was the general thinking behind the creation of this center?

“The idea was to bring a learning experience that is very different from what the traditional educational system has typically provided. Workforce needs in the Midlands and the entire state of South Carolina are rapidly changing. Our students need a program that exposes them to different career options based on their interests and prepares them to successfully enter the workforce or continue their education and training toward their career goals.”

How will this look from a practical standpoint?

“Our goal is to fully immerse students in a professional culture as they solve real-world problems and are mentored by real employers while receiving high school and possibly college credit. Working with regional business partners and colleges and universities, we will provide learning opportunities that are dynamic and constantly evolving to follow industry trends and market changes.”

Can you talk a little about how the center will function?

“Generally, students will come to the center from their assigned high schools for a series of courses and experiences. This could be in the morning, in the afternoon, or perhaps even in the evening. We anticipate students will also be contributing on site at local and regional businesses and higher educational institutions. We also expect a strong presence in the facility by higher educational institutions and business professionals.”

What are some specific courses/subject areas that will be offered?

“We have not finalized the program at this point but we are looking at programs in advanced engineering, advanced information technologies, supply chain logistics, advanced manufacturing and hospitality arts. We have an advisory board comprised of representatives from private industry, workforce development and higher education that will help us finalize our programs and curriculum.”

How will students be selected to participate in this particular program?

“We have not finalized the specific selection process but we have agreed that students will need to demonstrate a high degree of motivation and commitment to work and learn in this type of environment. They will need to demonstrate responsibility and be willing to move work forward in a collaborative environment. We do not anticipate minimum GPAs per se as a requirement.”

What do you see as some of the greatest potential benefits of the center?

“Getting the opportunity to work with professionals in a variety of fields on projects that have real application and having the experience of learning in an environment that is more like a business than a school. Also having the benefit of knowing workforce and higher education expectations and opportunities and interacting with experienced local leaders of industry and learning.”

What are the continued challenges facing school districts to develop more such innovative learning programs?

“There are a variety of educational requirements that, while well intentioned, may actually limit flexibility and agility in developing programs that best meet the needs of today’s students. The commitment of a strong school board willing to put the best interest of students first that also understands the unique relationships that are possible with private industry and higher education is an advantage we have here in Richland 2.”

At the same time, what steps must be taken to ensure that such innovation does not come at the expense of basic reading, math and language skills?

“Everything we are talking about doing here at the Richland Two Institute of Innovation requires basic reading, math and writing skills. We expect students to apply these skills and many others in cross-discipline approaches. We expect our teachers to support reading, math, writing, presentation and interpersonal skill development regardless of whatever type of course they are teaching. A real plus for this type of program is that students gain a better understanding of those types of fundamental skills because they see their connection and relevance to life outside of a classroom.”

Reach Rantin at (803) 771-8306.

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