As Montana lawmakers continue their months-long deliberations over career and technical education for K-12 students, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen appeared in the Capitol Rotunda Wednesday to announce a related initiative taking shape at the Office of Public Instruction.

Utilizing more than $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, Arntzen is hiring 10 regional career coaches to work with local school districts and businesses throughout the state. The new program, dubbed Montana Ready, is headed by former Board of Public Education member Mary Heller. Heller told the modest gathering of lawmakers and industry representatives that the new positions will aid students in identifying career-centric educational opportunities and developing the “soft skills” needed when joining the workforce, such as working in teams and writing emails.

“Our goal is to have regional coaches go out into our communities and help assist our school districts so they can get these students ready,” Heller said.

The announcement also featured appearances by Montana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd O’Hair and Mike Houghton with Dick Anderson Construction, both of whom spoke to the importance of informing youth about educational pathways outside the traditional four-year college degree. Houghton framed the program as beneficial for employers and students alike, addressing the challenge of finding applicants with adequate skills while giving students the chance to explore paths that could lead them into a professional trade.

OPI began soliciting applicants for its regional positions in February. After Wednesday’s event, Arntzen told Montana Free Press that the agency fielded more than 30 candidates and is close to filling all 10 posts. She added that the program was inspired by efforts in Alabama to recruit career coaches for all of the state’s public schools. Asked for more details about the Montana Ready program’s funding, Arntzen said the money will come from a pot of federal funds specifically earmarked for pandemic learning loss.

“If we engage students in school and engage them in their community, will they do better in school?” she said. “Sure they will, because they’re engaged.”

Arntzen confirmed that, given the one-time nature of the federal funding, OPI will likely request ongoing financial support for the program from the Legislature in 2025. To that end, Heller said that the program intends to have career coaches collect data on participation and student outcomes from the start.

“They’re going to say this is how many students we have, how many school districts are involved. This is how many employers are getting involved from different career clusters, this is how many students did a registered apprenticeship with Department of Labor [and Industry] and how we helped us with that. This is how many students are dual enrollment, maybe with a two-year college or whatever,” Heller said. “We’re going to track all of that.”

A proposal making its way through the current session — House Bill 458, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls — would put the state superintendent in charge of issuing certifications for career coaches. HB 458 was approved by the Senate 48-1 last month and is on its way to Gov. Greg Gianforte for consideration.

Heller acknowledged that the new program is similar to efforts already undertaken by certain school districts. Among those she mentioned was Billings, where district officials have already employed four career coaches and collaborated with local businesses, the Billings Career Center and others on a robust career and technical education (CTE) outreach initiative. According to Missoula County Public Schools spokesperson Barbara Frank, hiring a career coach to work with students in grades 6-12 is one of the goals in her district’s strategic plan, and MCPS is currently attempting to secure grant funding to support such a position.

OPI’s new career coaches also mirror the long-standing work of Montana’s seven Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs), which represent a broad swath of professions including health care, construction, agriculture, marketing and hospitality. More than 10,000 students statewide participated in those organizations during the 2021-22 school year, gaining access to skill-building competitions, job shadowing, scholarship opportunities and apprenticeships. John Stiles, state director for the Distributive Education Clubs of America, told MTFP that organizations like his have been involved for more than 70 years in the type of student support and outreach that Montana Ready aims to focus on.

“This concept isn’t really a new concept,” Stiles said. “It’s not a bad concept, but it’s not new. It exists within our CTSO platform right now.”

In fact, CTSOs are advocating for an enhancement of their own this session. House Bill 382, sponsored by Rep. Greg Oblander, R-Billings, would direct $500,000 toward grants supporting the work of CTSOs, in addition to the roughly $500,000 the organizations have received from the state annually since 2013. Last month, several lawmakers argued that at least some of the financial support for CTSOs should come from the business sector, prompting an amendment that requires the organizations to secure $20,000 in private matching funds to qualify for additional state aid. The amendment also outlines a process for CTSOs to report their activities to state education officials. HB 382 passed the House on a 97-1 vote this month and received its first Senate hearing Wednesday.

Elsewhere, lawmakers are looking to boost participation in trade-based education by creating more flexibility within Montana’s Advanced Opportunities program. The program, administered by OPI, provides roughly $4 million a year in state funding to local districts to support development and growth of STEM and CTE courses for students grades 6-12. House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, would increase the amount of Advanced Opportunities funding that individual districts can qualify for and require that 75% of those funds go toward covering out-of-pocket expenses incurred by participating students. According to a fiscal note prepared for the bill, participation in the program has already increased from 10 enrolled districts to 62 since it was first established in 2019. HB 257 passed the Senate Tuesday on a bipartisan vote of 37-13 and now heads to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.

Here’s a brief recap of where other proposals on the career and technical education front stand as of this week:

  • House Bill 749, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, expands the scope and oversight of the Montana Digital Academy, a Montana university system initiative designed to increase student access to online courses. While not strictly a CTE bill, HB 749 does broaden the academy’s focus to include coursework involving experiential learning and career readiness. It also requires the academy’s governing board to report the number of CTE credits and industry credentials earned by participating students alongside other information it provides to the Legislature’s interim education committees. HB 749 passed the House 96-3 and is slated for a committee hearing in the Senate Friday.
  • House Bill 944, sponsored by Rep. Paul Tuss, D-Havre, would direct $1.1 million toward establishing new CTE partnerships between two-year colleges and public school districts. The pilot program would be administered by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, with state-backed grants designed to help campuses enhance CTE programming and to support high school students seeking dual-enrollment credits. Participating colleges and schools would be required to put up matching funds, along with a plan to sustain new programs long-term once the grant funding expires. HB 944 passed the House with strong bipartisan support and is scheduled for an initial committee hearing in the Senate April 21.
  • House Bill 245, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, would add roughly three dozen skill-based occupations to a list of jobs that qualify for an existing trade-based education and training tax credit program. The credits — a state effort to incentive workforce development — can be claimed by employers who offer on-the-job training for employees in certain specialized fields, up to $2,000 a year per qualifying employee. Vinton’s proposal also stipulates that credits could be awarded for professions not listed in the law. On April 5, HB 245 passed its initial vote on the Senate floor, 42-8.
  • Senate Bill 444, sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, would implement certain requirements for work-based learning programs, including providing written descriptions of how they will supervise a student’s on-the-job activities and periodically assess whether a student is learning from those activities. The bill is designed to ensure that such programs are structured and beneficial for participating students. SB 444 received unanimous approval from the full House during an initial floor vote Wednesday.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...