As thousands of area high school seniors graduate this month, two central Ohio school districts are focused on ensuring students are college- and career-ready.

In Gahanna, the city and Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools are collaborating with the Gahanna Area Chamber of Commerce in an effort to help meet local work force needs.

The chamber recently formed an Education Committee as a business-school partnership in response to Gahanna Mayor Tom Kneeland and district Superintendent Steve Barrett's goal of workforce development.

Meanwhile, Westerville has received about $1.4 million for its participation in the Innovation Generation initiative, which is affiliated with the national Pathways to Prosperity Network.

The Innovation Generation initiative establishes career pathways into vital industry sectors in the central Ohio area.

Both are focusing on providing real-world experiences that help students and businesses connect.

Gahanna's approach

Mary Held, a board of trustee member for Gahanna's chamber, is the Education Committee chairwoman.

"We're focused at this point on enhancing Gahanna's economic growth and prosperity by addressing our business community's needs for skilled employees," she said.

Both Sharon Tomko, the Gahanna school district's community relations and outreach coordinator, and Tia Holliman, dean of high school curriculum and instruction, suggested the local business community could attract future employees by speaking about their businesses and jobs to middle school and high school students.

She said those discussions could introduce students to internships, job shadowing, part-time work and site visits.

"These activities can help students find jobs they never knew existed and also understand the education and work experience required to hold these jobs," Held said.

"We also hope students' participation in these activities will inform their decisions about education choices and potential career paths," she said.

As a first step, the chamber recently sent a survey to its members, asking about their willingness to participate in the business-school partnership activities for the 2017-18 school year.

The results will be compiled soon. The Education Committee will then begin to contact those members who indicated an interest in partnering with the schools, and connect them with school district staffers.

Barrett said he has visited many businesses with Kneeland and many high-paying positions are available.

"It's amazing how consistent it is from business to business," Barrett said.

"One president told us, 'We don't need tax abatements, but we need good workers,' " he said.

Barrett said available jobs for technicians and electricians pay $17 to $18 an hour and companies will provide training.

"Central Ohio is booming and there's lots of jobs unfilled," he said.

"One thing we've been talking about is a four-year college is costly. The (businesses) are willing to train kids. That's the common story we hear where we go," he said.

After graduation

Among last year's 549 graduating seniors in Gahanna, Holliman said, about 58 percent (319 students) went to four-year institutions, 20 percent (110 students) went to two-year institutions, fewer than 2 percent (10 students) joined the military and about 20 percent (110 students) pursued other options, such as work or taking a year to explore options.

Mike Kunselman, an engineering teacher with Gahanna-Jefferson who works with Project Lead the Way, said most of his students are going into a career field, a two-year program such as an apprenticeship or studying through Columbus State Community College in modern manufacturing.

He said PLTW is a national curriculum that helps prepare students to make a career decision.

"I also have quite a few students pursuing engineering and business degrees with an engineering and entrepreneurial focus," he said.

The engineering program has been supported through the Innovation Generation initiative via Ohio's Straight A Fund.

Ohio's biennial education budget dedicated $100 million to the Straight A Fund in fiscal year 2014, $150 million in 2015, $15 million in 2016 and $15 million in 2017.

The money provides grants to schools, supporting ideas from educators that promote academic achievement and economic efficiencies within schools and districts.

Gahanna is offering electives and required courses through the PLTW engineer pathway.

"We're offering four full classes and I see 125 kids every day with some kind of engineering class," Kunselman said.

Gahanna senior Zach Ryan followed the engineering pathway because he plans to become an engineer.

This fall, he will attend Ohio State University to study computer science.

"I'll use what I know to build things and make the world better," he said.

"I find (computer) programming exciting. I've done a lot of stuff working with machines. No other class will give you this experience," he said.

Westerville's focus

Anne Baldwin, Westerville career tech and college readiness coordinator, said her district believes all students -- beginning at a young age -- need access to real-world, applied learning experiences that empower them in gaining the skills they need to thrive in college, career and beyond.

"Through our programs, students develop in-demand, transportable skills such as problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, collaboration and communication that they will use both in school and for the rest of their lives, on any career path they take," she said.

School districts, higher education institutions and business work together to help students earn the credentials needed to fill some of central Ohio's fastest-growing jobs.

Baldwin said PLTW provides a hands-on opportunity for students to experience a specific content area and explore careers in that area.

As PLTW students progress through grades K-12, she said, they also engage in problem-solving and process thinking, develop technical knowledge and skills, and build communication skills.

Westerville offers health, engineering and business logistics pathways.

At the end of the engineering and design class, Baldwin said, students create something for a teacher that would be useful to them.

"They have to act like an engineer, go through a design process to create a product for a teacher," she said.

"As the result of the Straight A grant, we were connected with Gahanna and Reynoldsburg."

The Straight A Fund funded Westerville's mobile Fab Lab at the middle school level, as well as training and supplies to start PLTW courses at the high school.

"Project Lead The Way is a curriculum that is used nationwide," Baldwin said. "They provide a specific training for teachers who teach that course work. Our teachers have a two-week rigorous training."

Westerville also offers one of the largest International Baccalaureate programs in Ohio.

"Our numbers, especially with our recent growth, compare very favorably with other IB schools across the state," said Bill Heinmiller, IB Diploma Program coordinator.

"I am not certain where we would fit if enrollment numbers were listed in rank order, but I would have to think we are near the top," Heinmiller said.

"We have been fortunate to offer a diverse selection of courses that have wide-ranging appeal to our students," he said.

He said students have found that one of the most attractive aspects of the IB program is the connections they can see through taking multiple courses.

"This explains why over 80 percent of our students who signed up for IB courses are enrolled in multiple classes," Heinmiller said.

Most of Westerville's IB students attend college after high school, he said.

"Many of our students are able to earn college credit for their IB course work, sometimes entering college with sophomore status," Heinmiller said.

Westerville has had 200 students taking IB courses this year, while 292 are enrolled for next year.

"Our program prepares students for a wide range of opportunities after high school, from liberal arts colleges to those who specialize in STEM-related fields or the arts," Heinmiller said.

"Regardless of where they matriculate, our students consistently return to tell us that they are very well prepared for the challenges of higher education," he said.