HELENA -- Conrad Superintendent Sharyl Allen said, about two years ago, she received countless letters, phone calls and emails demanding she quit her job.

“We had people calling for my resignation saying how dare I challenge their kids like this.”

Parents and community members were protesting a new educational system Conrad High School implemented in the Fall of 2017. Allen calls it proficiency-based or personalized learning.

“Too many kids have their eyes rolled in the back of their heads because we keep teaching them the same stuff or saying ‘you all need this,’” she said. “But what we’re really trying to say is, ‘what is the student passion that drives our curriculum?’ We think that’s what the future looks like.”

Allen said all students have their strengths and their weaknesses, but it’s redundant to teach students what they already know; a proficiency-based model allows students to move at their own pace. By not having a set class time for specific courses, students can excel in their strengths by going further on their own, but also have their weaknesses covered by getting extra help from teachers.

This structure allows students to have an open schedule, one they can fill with opportunities outside of the classroom, like, the three students Conrad High School has enrolled in John Deere University, an online teaching program used to train John Deere employees.

The students are getting elective credits and taking class time to learn skills for a job in their community. Allen said these students will have high paying jobs right after high school, somewhere between $15 to $20 an hour for starting wage.

State Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, took about 25 lawmakers during the interim and showed them the school and its system.

“We know in the state we have a huge shortage in the workforce. We have a hole, both in meeting our workforce needs and in servicing our students,” Jones said. “We have about 12,000 kids graduate per year. About 7,000 of them go onto a four-year college — and we have good four year programs — but 5,000 are where? We can’t tell you. Schools can’t tell you.”

Lawmakers are moving legislation aiming to remove barriers in the public school system in order to encourage students to seek professional opportunities while they’re in school and to fill community worker needs.

About 10 bills were introduced during the 2019 legislative session with the goal of spreading this education model statewide. Those bills do things like giving worker’s compensation insurance to students and helping the state track the kinds of jobs students are getting after high school.

Jones’ bill, House Bill 387, which passed the Senate 33-16 last week, wraps together the legislative push. The bill would help students pay for what Jones calls “advanced opportunities.” That could be helping a student take dual-enrollment credits, or pay for welding equipment for an apprenticeship. The proposed law gives discretion to individual school districts on what is considered an advanced opportunity in order to fill community needs.

Jones said students often don’t know these opportunities even exist, but it’s up to the schools to encourage each student onto successful paths.

“If we are not, through our counselors and through our systems, providing a students of a vision of all opportunities. Then, in a truth, we’re failing that student,” he said.

Jones said these bills don’t discourage students from higher education, but rather open up the opportunities that are right for each student. Lawmakers are working with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to open career and technical education options for two- and four-year higher education by retraining counselors to encourage career and technical paths. 

These bills aren’t just trying to encourage a re-structure of Montana's educational system, but they’re also attempting to fill a statewide labor shortage.

According to the state Department of Labor, Montana’s unemployment rate is at 3.8 percent. Barb Wagner, who’s the chief economist at the department, said having such a low unemployment rate shows a shortage of workers across the state.

“So there’s lots of benefits to a worker shortage. There’s lots of job opportunities. Wage growth is typically fairly fast, particularly among jobs that are low wage to begin with,” Wagner said. “The flip side of that, is that business have a really hard time finding workers. And if you can’t find workers to produce your product, you can’t meet the demand for your product.”

Not only is there a workforce shortage, but Wagner said Montana will lose 100,000 workers to retirement in the next 10 years.

“That’s about one-fifth of Montana’s workforce,” she said.

But, Wagner also said about 70 percent of jobs in Montana only require a high school education.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t need credentials, right?” she said. “For example, a plumber is categorized as an occupation that only needs a high school diploma, but in order to be a plumber in Montana, you would need to have completed our apprenticeship program and have that certification.”

Representative Jones said education and the workforce are coupled, but the current “cells and bells” school system is outdated. He said in order to prepare students for a shifting and dynamic  workforce, learning has to be done outside of the walls of a school.

“The world has evolved. The biggest tool of a technician is no longer the wrench, it’s the laptop. And these set of rules which once created the structure and success to deal with the world as it was, now, at least in some scenarios, has become the barrier. It’s hard to do an internship for an afternoon if you can only spend 50 minutes a day at it,” Jones said.

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton is working with Jones and other legislators on these bills. Bedey said the strategy is to fund schools that are willing to adopt the system. House Bill 351, co-sponsored by Bedey, would give additional funding to schools with proficiency-based education and appropriate about $7.7 million in state funding over the next four years. That bill passed the Senate 43-6 last week.

“We can’t command changes in culture. What they’re going to do is demonstrate success. Other districts will pick up on this. Over time, we see the potential for transforming things,” Bedey said.

In order to further career and technical education in Montana into what lawmakers envision, more work needs to be done next legislative session. Bedey said during the next interim, legislators will try to figure out a way to restructure community college funding away from full-time model. There are more barriers in K-12 schools too, like getting credits for opportunities outside of school other than electives.

Bedey said changing the way schools operate is a huge undertaking, and he doesn’t expect it to happen overnight.

In Conrad, Allen said people in her community began to adopt the new model after they saw what proficiency-based learning looked like in practice.

Bedey said he’s optimistic local communities are willing to change.

“The price you pay is you don’t get it instantly. But I’d rather get it over time than not at all,” he said.

Other bills in the package include: HB 61, HB 171, HB 218, HB 295, HB 619, HB 657, HB 732Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.