Lunch With - Kara Gae Neal
Superintendent, Tulsa Technology Center
Date: June 26
Time: 11:30 a.m.
Place: Oliver's Twist, Brookside
There likely aren’t many who know Oklahoma schools better than Kara Gae Neal. She has served as superintendent for local and county school systems and, after a short career in real estate, recently became head of Tulsa Technology Center, her second career tech post. I always enjoy visiting with her because she keeps on top of things, peppering me with questions, offering her opinions.
Today, our two-hour lunch focuses on the changing landscape of education, and the collaboration among Tulsa area systems — public schools, Tulsa Tech and Tulsa Community College.
“The parameters for education are beginning to shift, and it’s very hard to know which way. Everything is compressed … fast tracked,” she says, citing two students who simultaneously graduated high school and received an associate’s degree in 3-D animation. Flexible scheduling and exceptional cooperation among schools make such combinations possible. “The whole area is poised to be a model education community,” she notes.
Career tech in particular “is finally coming out of the old image of your daddy’s shop class,” she says, thanks to the broad use of technology in every area of study. And, she adds, high schoolers, regardless of their campus clique — prep, jock, etc. — also want to be techies.
“My greatest satisfaction is that we have waiting lists (for courses); my greatest frustration is that we have waiting lists,” she says. “We can’t offer enough classes fast enough because technology and class size requirements limit how many hands you can have on (teaching equipment).”
One of her challenges is overcoming the perception that career tech is for “other” students.
“The news flash is that there are no ‘other’ students,” she says. “The brightest students are wanting the technology; the slowest students are needing the technology.”
Unlike their grandparents, today’s students who leave high school without a degree or marketable skills are likely limited to minimum-wage jobs. There are no jobs — that pay a living wage — “that don’t require some skills,” Neal emphasizes. And career tech, high schools, community colleges and the business sector can help students find their direction, she believes, whether through counseling, course work or, in the case of businesses, paying for a worker’s training.
They also can help students decide whether a career path is right — or not. One particularly fascinating example: Tulsa Tech’s pre-engineering classes, for grades 9-12, which provide four years of study on the principles and options of engineering careers. More than 600 students have enrolled for the 2009-2010 school year.
“One of the biggest dropout rates in college is engineering,” Neal says.
After the tech course, students know whether they are suited and able to do the work. Result: They stay in college.
At present, Neal is looking forward to the Owasso technology center, expected to open in three years. Among other things, it will offer a large conference center and classes for 500 more Tech students. Additionally, Tulsa Tech is building space at the complex for Tulsa Community College to lease for offering classes.
“Our new focus is extending client services” beyond the student’s years at Tulsa Tech, whether it’s job placement or free courses in starting a business, she says. Schools in general are just now seeing students as clients, she points out, because there is more competition for them from the private sector. She wants to be sure Tulsa Tech meets students’ needs, always asking, “What else can we do for you?”
I’d say that’s a smart approach no matter what your business.