If you have been paying attention, you know the buzz on Connecticut is a bit mixed right now. The list of ills includes, among other things, budget woes and workforce development.

Is there reason to be optimistic? Yes. Why? Our K-12 public school students — and the districts, educators and administrators working to position them for success in high-demand, modern industries in ways that can strengthen the state’s overall economy.

Waterbury Career Academy High School (WCA) in Waterbury, CT is on point. WCA is a competitive, urban high school to which students must apply; only 33% are accepted. The school offers high-quality learning through pathways, or “strands” — health services, human services, information technology, and engineering/manufacturing — and students select their strand at the end of their freshman year.

For WCA students in the health services strand, the clinical training area sits alongside classroom space.

The students — the majority of whom are low-income, minority children — are bright, energetic, and engaging. Their teachers are committed, their facility is welcoming and interactive, and their principal, Dr. Louis Padua, stands at the door to greet them every morning and send them home every afternoon.

Aside from the strong academics and sense of community, what WCA is doing is extraordinarily relevant in light of a long-running problem in Connecticut: workforce shortages. While all four strands aim to produce talent for Connecticut employers in high-demand industries, a recent opinion piece in the Hartford Courant gives rise to highlight the WCA health services strand. On December 22, 2019, the Courant published “Congress Must Pass Nursing Workforce Bill,” by Lynda S. Emard, a graduate student at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, CT.

In arguing for federal legislation that would support the growing need for nurses (driven, in part, by an aging/retiring nurse population, increased access to health care for millions through the Affordable Care Act, and the rapid rate of baby boomers turning 65 who need care), Enard (perhaps unknowingly) makes the case for high-quality K-12 learning opportunities like the WCA strands as a way to address Connecticut’s workforce shortages. As applied to nursing, WCA’s dedicated health services strand is the talent pipeline Connecticut healthcare employers need, both short- and long-term. Short-term, at the end of their junior year, WCA students in the health services strand with 60 hours of clinical experience and sufficient concurrent classroom work are eligible to sit for the Certified Nurse’s Aide exam (note: WCA boasts a 96% pass rate!). Long-term, for healthcare careers requiring postsecondary education (e.g., 2- or 4-year degree), students who have followed the strand are better positioned to leverage opportunities found in the legislation, including grants to promote career advancement for CNAs. Graduates from the WCA health services strand can ultimately become the higher-level talent the nursing field now demands.

WCA is one of many schools across the state working to position students for success while simultaneously aiming to strengthen both local and statewide economies by addressing workforce shortages. There are thoughtful programs like this happening across Connecticut, many of which require minimal investment. As issues like workforce development continue to swirl, we encourage everyone to remain mindful of the live action role — as described above — that K-12 public education can play in addressing them.