Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern Rolanda Tina Turner reflects on life skills education in her thought piece from Walker County.

Let’s be honest: Older generations are often astonished by how little today’s generation knows. Consider cars. Young Boomers spent endless afternoons tooling around with tie rods and carburetors. But today’s youth spend more time perfecting trip playlists than looking under the hood – assuming they can even find the latch.

As American schools increasingly focus on preparing students for higher education and careers, life skill classes like Home Economics and Financial Literacy have fallen by the wayside. Still other skills have fallen victim to technology.

For example, teens acknowledge they are in dire need of guidance on face-to-face communication. And this is just one among many life skills parents and educators believe could use polishing. Even though millennials are high achievers in the classroom, when it comes to basic life skills, they’re not making the same grades.

In recent years, a growing contingent has advocated for the return of mandatory practical education. Walker County has joined this common-sense cohort and will begin offering “Life 101” classes to help high-school students address skills gaps.

Holly Trawick, who serves as the Executive Director for the Walker College Foundation, remembers learning how to sew on buttons and write a check as a high-school student. She laments that this generation’s students don’t learn cursive or take Home Economics before graduating. “Schools are pushing for tests and careers and that’s basically it! They aren’t equipping teens with the basic necessities that are essential to maintaining a comfortable lifestyle post high-school either in the work-force or in college”, Mrs. Trawick said. 

Home Economics classes fell out of favor in the 1970s as women entered the workforce in greater numbers. By the 1990s, Home Economics was renamed Family and Consumer Sciences in an effort to broaden its appeal. The name change successfully evolved to meet the challenges that faced individuals, families, and communities.

Unfortunately, Home Economics was not offered at my high school in Pell City, Alabama. Even so, when a button fell off a pair of my pants last month, I took it upon myself to sew it back on instead of throwing the shorts out, which has become normal these days. Did I do a good job? Yes, but only because my mother taught me that skill. Little did I know where this simple feat of sewing would take me.

I came to Walker County with an open mind and the desire to make a difference. I could never have predicted how a needle and thread led to my becoming intrigued with skills-based education working with both The Walker College Foundation and Mrs. Trawick.

For over a decade, Mrs. Trawick has made her home in Jasper, and she says nothing has been more rewarding than being involved in various projects and events to make Jasper and Walker County thrive. “The way you make a home in a new place is you give back to that community,” Trawick said.  Then she elaborated, “you give that community your time, and you do whatever you can to help the people that live there, work there and who call it home. Then it becomes your home too.”

The Walker College Foundation has its roots in Walker College, which became part of Bevill State Community College in the 1990s. Dedicating its services to the Walker College campus of Bevill State, the Foundation continues to support local education by providing scholarships to deserving area students. The Walker College Foundation provides total scholarships of approximately $400,000 each year. Trawick said the Foundation was built on the “rich and vibrant history of Walker College” and that still resonates with members of the community. She is excited to be a part of a growing foundation and adding to its vision.

Fortunately, Mrs. Trawick and I realized that there is so much potential for The Walker College Foundation to make a difference in so many lives through educational opportunities in addition to granting scholarships. A life skills class fits with the Foundation’s mission because of value and importance of shaping students into tomorrow’s scholars and leaders through diverse opportunities.

We then made it our mission for the Summer to simply listen to the needs of the surrounding community. Whether we spoke with a teacher, a principal, a counselor, a student, or even a recent graduate, we went into those conversations with the mindset of asking what we could do for stakeholders rather than telling them what the Foundation could do.

Because I was an outsider, I was fairly uneducated about the programs and opportunities the Foundation and school systems offered students. So, initially, and out of respect for the work the schools were already doing, we looked for ways to build on existing programming instead of creating new ones. 

Within the first week of exploring the educational venues of Walker County, we quickly learned that every high-school in Walker County operates a little bit differently than the others. Even so, it was clear that all of them were facing the same issue: the need for more counselors and staff.

School counselors in Walker County were hired to listen to students’ concerns about academic, emotional, or social problems, but now they devote the majority of their time towards administering tests. So instead of helping students cope with issues like test anxiety, counselors are tasked with delivering those tests to students. As contradictory as that sounds, I recognized an opportunity to implement a program that would positively affect Walker County schools, teachers, counselors, parents, and most importantly students!

From that moment on, I made it my goal for my Summer as a JOIP intern  to increase the practical education opportunities granted to high-school students in Walker County. However, before any plan was implemented, Mrs. Trawick and I conducted a thorough community needs assessment. We collected and examined data from a variety of individuals and sources in order to properly identify the need areas. Additionally, we identified the schools’ strengths & weaknesses as well as particular challenges that given schools face every day.

From these conversations held with city officials and school representatives, I recognized that a lack of resources leads to lack of commitment and responsibility, both of which are vital for discovery and development of human potential.

With just enough time left in my internship placement, I envisioned a life skills course offered to 11th grade students in all of Walker County’s High-Schools. Once I informed Mrs. Trawick of my idea, the first thing she asked me was what I would call it. And the first thing that came to my mind was Branch Out! “Students are like seeds,” I said. “If they get the right amount of sunshine, water, and nutrients…they have the power and ability to grow anywhere in the world.” I wanted to help students blossom, to create a “garden” so that all of the students could prosper. These same ideals are how Branch Out came about.

Branch Out is designed to increase student knowledge and skills necessary for everyday living. The course emphasizes goal-setting, decision making and problem solving, communication, financial stability, and interview prep. Branch Out exposes students to a variety of life and employability skills needed to prepare them for life after high-school.

The objectives of this course are for students to learn how to better manage their time, money, and resources. Additionally, students will receive hands-on learning with the help of an interview-prep series. This includes creating or revising a resume, becoming associated with common interview questions, and participating in a realistically simulated mock interview.

This sequence of skills training will prepare students to interview for future jobs and careers. Lastly, Branch Out requires that students participate in a poverty simulation to help them establish a realistic picture for their future plans. Ideally, this course would be taught during twelve weeks out of each school semester with 30-45 students enrolled in the course.

Although Branch Out is still in the beginning stages, every school within Walker County has showed interest in the program. All schools have vowed to change their course curriculum as soon as possible so that the course can be approved by the Alabama State Department of Education.

Mary Slaughter, who serves as the Central Office Supervisor at the Walker County Board of Education, stated that “in Fall 2020, Branch Out will be a credited class course for 11th grade students in Walker County.” And although this is exciting news, I still have a lot of work to do. Not only do lesson plans need to be finalized, but grants to support the curriculum need to be written during this crucial time.

I’m saddened that my time in Jasper has come to an end, but I am hopeful Branch Out has the power and ability to help students, maybe even for generations to come. Fall 2020 will be the pilot year for the course but I am confident Branch Out will succeed because of the support its received from both the Walker College Foundation and the Walker Area Community Foundation, as well as the support it has inspired from Walker County Schools. With the creation of Branch Out, I’m able to leave Walker County with the knowledge that I’ve achieved my goal of making a difference by informing and empowering students.

-Rolanda Tina Turner, University of Alabama New College 

Jasper, Alabama

The photo of Rolanda was taken by Ms. Nicole Smith for the four-piece series on the 2019 Walker County Interns featured in the Daily Mountain Eagle.