SHEFFIELD — In the midst of a 130-page report on workforce development by the Business Education Alliance of Alabama is a case study of Sheffield High School's successful efforts in raising its rate of students going to college.

The report, released Tuesday, documented various state efforts to prepare 500,000 workers to fill highly skilled jobs by 2025.

Some of the report's key findings were based on test scores and other educational patterns in Alabama's K-12 schools.

The report pointed out high schools across the state are graduating about 50,000 students per year, but in 2018, report shows that 13,746 seniors (about one fourth of the graduates) were not college and career ready.

On the positive side, the state's graduation rate increased from 72% in 2011 to 90% in 2018, and the percentage of seniors deemed college and career ready grew from 66% to 75%.

The case study singled out Sheffield City Schools as a system that has made great strides in getting its students better prepared for college.

In 2014, the Sheffield system had the lowest college-going rates of any system in the state with only 36% of graduates going on to a two- or four-year college.

Since then, Sheffield has shown more improvement on that measure than any other system. In 2017 and 2018, 100% of Sheffield graduates applied to at least one college.

"We were getting the kids ready, but they weren't going on to college," said Sheffield High Guidance Counselor Melissa Ryan. "When the state started a big push with the college application campaign (with colleges waiving application fees) we really got on board. Then a couple years later, they started 'Cash for College,' which was the big FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) push. It has taken the schools a while to get that done, but we pursued it and we depend heavily on our resources in the community to help us work on that."

The alliance report pointed out that help was offered to those families encountering difficulties in what can be a complicated application process for federal student aid.

Ryan said Sheffield High's push to improve, the students became excited about the possibility of going to college, and became less fearful of the process involved.

"We work hard to keep them motivated, believing they can achieve a college education," she said.

Sheffield Superintendent Keith Davis said the highlighting of Sheffield in the Business Alliance of Alabama report makes a strong statement: "We expect our students to perform at the highest level and are committed to providing opportunities for them to do that."

The Alabama Commission on Higher Education maintains the data on how many of those students actually follow through and enroll in college.

Ryan said Sheffield's numbers are much improved in that category as well.

The report, which also takes into account research findings by the Public Affairs Research Council and A+ Education Partnership, looked at the state's career and technical education programs. It encourages policymakers to develop a more meaningful college and career readiness measurement.

Alabama Workforce Council Chairman Tim McCartney applauds the state's ambitious goal of training 500,000 skilled workers, but added that preparing workers must come first.

"It is equally important the workers gain the critical skills they need to be competitive in the workplace," he said.

Career Technical Education certification is the fastest growing method in the state for students to earn the college and career readiness designation.

However, the report's findings show a need for all certificates to rise to the level of rigor that demonstrates that state of readiness.

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