WESTFIELD – The Westfield Education to Business Alliance (WE2BA) is making a difference by bringing businesses and students together to work on essential skills that prepare students for the workforce.
Chamber of Commerce director Kate Phelon explained that back in 2013 when Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski was principal of Westfield Technical Academy, they invited technology companies to the school. “We listened to them talk about essential skills,” she said, things like firm handshakes and eye contact, and how to communicate with people. “The school started listening,” she added.
“In moving forward, what we initially called soft skills, we now call essential skills. Skills you need to be a successful person,” Czaporowski said.
“Engineers in particular noticed a big gap, and had an issue with that in new hires,” said Science, Technology and Engineering supervisor Lauren Figy.
One of the new initiatives that WE2BA is piloting this year is Adopt a Classroom, which pairs a member of the business community with a teacher to present a mini-session to students. The themes of this year’s sessions are presentations, empowerment and self-care.
Peter Letendre, plant manager of Mestek paired up with WHS chemistry teacher Ben Hatch for the first Adopt a Classroom project, to teach students how to give a good presentation. Hatch, Figy, and Mary Keane, English supervisor for Westfield Public Schools worked with Letendre on a lesson plan and tips to make it friendly and engaging before teaching the class.
Keane said Letendre started with a really bad presentation, and asked the students for feedback. He then gave a better presentation. Following the workshop, Letendre told Keane that the students’ comments were perceptive and articulate, and that he was excited for the future workforce.
There were immediate results as well. Figy said at the annual Science and Engineering Fair at Westfield High School, of the 30 projects that went to a second round of judging, 50% of the students came from Mr. Hatch’s class. Letendre, who served as a community judge, said he could tell the difference in presentations by the students who were in his group and those who weren’t.
The second Adopt a Classroom will be run by the Forum House, a social service organization in Westfield. In preparation, Keane met with Forum House director Sally English and had a tour of the facility.
“It was an organization in the community I didn’t know much about,” Keane said, adding that it was beneficial to her as an educator. She said one of the goals of WE2BA is community building.
The Forum House Adopt a Classroom will teach empowerment and resiliency skills, how to overcome obstacles and draw on your strengths. The class will be taught by a staff person and a member of Forum House to WHS teachers Paul Mason and Sarah Corbett’s tenth grade classes.
Keane said the workshop and exchange will benefit both the students and the members of Forum House, because the students will be interested in what they have to say.
The third project will be with Melissa Richter of Peoples Bank, who will be working with teachers Joyce Manchino and Kathy Hedge at Abner Gibbs elementary school. The students are researching different states, and will present their projects during the first week in June. Richter will be talking to them about how to take care of themselves, self-care, before their presentations.
Part of the presentation will be teaching students the Superman pose, which Keane demonstrated with arms stretched high for confidence. “People can’t just walk into a class and present. It has to be engaging,” Keane said.
“It’s having a great impact on the students. It’s encouraging to see the business community stepping up,” said WHS Principal Charles “Chuck” Jendrysik.
The Adopt a Classroom program is not the only opportunity for community businesses to get involved with the schools this year. Recently, the Westfield Middle School held a career symposium, inviting 17 professionals in to speak to students about their work. Keane said at a reception afterwards, each of the business leaders gave positive feedback.
The High School Career Fair is also scheduled for April 25 at Westfield State, for both WHS and WTA. Phelon said the goal is to have 75 businesses attend. Some hands on displays are being planned, including the Department of Public Works and Lane Construction, both of which are bringing in equipment. She said there is also talk about having a police cruiser and emergency equipment from the University simulation lab.
Phelon said from a business point of view, the fair is an opportunity for the business community to show the students what businesses and career opportunities are here in Westfield, even for students on a college pathway, to encourage them to come back.
Czaporowski said the career fairs are important to help students find career choices that fit their interests.
Phelon said they need more businesses, both Chamber members and non-members, to become involved in WE2BA. “This is our future workforce. Businesses need to be involved with our students’ education, to be part of the solution. Whether students are on a college or career pathway,” Phelon said, adding that it’s important for businesses to have a “buy-in” with the schools.
“Having the businesses have a voice, helps the school in our program focusing on 21st century skills,” said Jendrysik.
“It’s about community. We want to provide businesses with a future work force that is invested in the community; that lives here, plays here, and will come back here,” Czaporowski said.
“It’s about the future,” Phelon added.