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From left: Sister Cecilia Ann Rezac, Matt Johnson and Jeni Hopkins
REBECCA GREEN | SBJ
From left: Sister Cecilia Ann Rezac, Matt Johnson and Jeni Hopkins

CEO Roundtable: Private Education

Posted online

Each month, we gather around the table with a different group of Springfield business leaders to discuss industry trends, workforce and company operations. Join us as we get a behind-the-scenes look into our business community from the C-suite.

Springfield Business Journal Executive Editor Christine Temple discusses private education with Jeni Hopkins, assistant director at Greenwood Laboratory School; Matt Johnson, chief academic officer at New Covenant Academy; and Sister Cecilia Ann Rezac, director of schools for Springfield Catholic Schools. Listen to the full conversation for discussion on enrollment trends, the use of artificial intelligence and ACT scores among private schools.

Christine Temple: Unemployment rates are challenging right now, and businesses are really needing that skilled workforce. What does that look like to be a college preparatory school? How do you connect with the community for that next step for your students?
Jeni Hopkins: The key word is what you just said: connections. The connections of the rigor in the classroom, what you’re providing there, but being able to connect that to the professional world. So, having the internships; we all require service learning for graduation. I think being able to tie the curriculum into that real world practice is really important. We try to bring professionals into our building as often as possible. Usually, 97% to 100% go to college, four-year universities. Some will go to a community college or a trade school or military. We have to prepare them for whatever their next step is.
Matt Johnson: I look at it as partnerships. This generation has this desire to be entrepreneurs more than any generation we’ve had in a long time. I’ve seen so much more of a project-based understanding from this generation. Providing them that opportunity, here’s the framework of what you have to operate in but come to a conclusion. That not only speaks to what it will be like for them in college, but I think it also speaks to them about what it’s like in the real world. We provide things like internships where they’re working with businesses here in the area, we have academic partnerships with different universities here. This generation just wants to learn.
Sister Cecilia Ann Rezac: It is wonderful that we have those opportunities to have dual credit opportunities for our students, to have them maybe take technical college classes. One thing that is also unique because of COVID pushing everybody into the next generation, if you will, we have students who are able to look into possibilities through social media. We have a lot more Zoom opportunities, chances for them to interview with colleges that are not able to come on campus, maybe even virtual internships so that they can experience what it might feel like in a field that’s not accessible here in town.

Gen Z in the workforce
Temple: A spring survey from Resume Builder finds 74% of managers and business leaders find Gen Z more difficult to work with than other generations. We heard this locally in media reports after the Missouri Job Center did a panel with business leaders. You are with high school students every day. What are the positive attributes that you see? Do you see those deficits? Do you think that maybe it’s education of the business leaders that needs to happen?
Rezac: Students tend to be very driven. Again, with social media, there’s so many things open to them, which may result in them maybe jumping from a career or an occupation to another just because there is so much more at their disposal. They want to answer questions, they want to ask questions. The struggle that we see is sometimes our students aren’t as resilient as they have been in the past. We’re trying to really work with them on how to work through problems instead of maybe giving up when things get tough. After and during COVID, we saw a definite increase in anxiety.
Hopkins: I feel like a fear of failure or making mistakes has been something with this generation that they struggle with. They don’t look at mistakes as isolated opportunities for improvement; they look at mistakes as a reflection on them as a human being. One thing that we can all do better is giving that grace and helping guide them through that and demonstrating that mistakes are just that next step closer to being successful. I would also say for professionals that are working with this generation that they have to adjust a little as well. They can still have their high expectations, they can still have their rigor, but there’s a different way to communicate now in this generation and being able to educate on how they can communicate, how they can motivate this generation can only be helpful to their organization.
Johnson: This generation has this feeling of isolationism. It’s obvious to see why. As an employer, I would encourage you to not only tap into that because it’s actually a good resource, you give them a project and they can accomplish the task. But also, you have to start teaching them how to be a team member, how to collaborate. Those basics of communication skills. We have to actually teach them what does it look like to have solid conversations that lead to a result. The one that I just spoke to our parents about the other day was the idea of failing forward. So much of this generation has had this safety net around them. Part of life sometimes is getting knocked down – and how do you get back up?

School choice
Temple: Missouri’s version of school choice was introduced in 2021, Missouri Scholars, and it’s funded by state tax credits. Last year, the program awarded a little over 1,300 scholarships and that number dropped this school year to about 820. This is available to students with an individualized education plan or those that come from lower-income households. Is this something your students access and is the program working as you expected?
Hopkins: We have not had experience accessing that or have been approached to.
Rezac: We’ve had just a few, I would say about eight students. Some of our difficulty is that they may not have a full-fledged IEP or they may be low income, but they didn’t live within the boundaries of the program. Part of it is last year the monies were not awarded as they had thought they would be, so there are some families that maybe were left in the lurch. This year, we had the families pay out of pocket until the program actually paid and then reimburse the family. This year, all of our students that did apply did get accepted and did get awarded. Overall, the number of students that are actually able to benefit from it is relatively small.
Johnson: We do have about 10 or less students that have used this program and it’s been successful for them. Coming from the state of Arizona – I’ve only been here in Springfield for three years – Arizona is kind of on the cutting edge of this. Missouri’s just at the infancy stage. So, there’s still a ton of requirements that have to be met. It’s a very small percentage of people that actually meet the criteria. This is a good start. It will be interesting to see if lawmakers continue to utilize this program as there are so many states in our country that are utilizing this and seeing the benefits for education overall. My hope would be that Missouri can continue to grow the program.
Temple: Does this provide a set amount of scholarship or credit to students, roughly $6,000 a year, right?
Rezac: Yes, and they can choose to use it for tuition, they can use it for tutoring.
Temple: What would growing the program look like for you?
Johnson: It’s probably expanding eligibility. I’m not saying that I’m a proponent of where Arizona is. Arizona just passed a law that every student, no matter what school they go to, is worth $7,500. So, if you choose private education, that comes out of the public education budget. That is like way out there and super extreme. But on the other side of that coin, the way that you have to get into the program, the stipulations that they’ve put in place, are very narrowing.

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