Ulster BOCES Positioned as an Early Engine for Workforce Development

The very essence of the mission of the Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, is its role as collaborator and facilitator. This is most evident through its work in supporting the county’s public schools in achieving their own missions by providing educational expertise and expanding access to programs and services for students through the efficiencies of collaboration. But, says Dr. Jonah M. Schenker, the new district superintendent of Ulster BOCES, there also exists a unique ability to foster conversation, collaboration, and outcomes to support economic development by connecting K-12 education, higher education, and workforce leaders.

Dr. Schenker discussed this vision with Ulster County Chamber of Commerce members on June 21 during their monthly meeting held at The Venue Uptown. He was accompanied by a team of students and other BOCES leaders who also spoke to the BOCES experience. 

According to Dr. Schenker, conversations about workforce and economic development can be more impactful if they begin with a discussion of the role of the 13 years of education that occur before a high school graduate enters college or goes directly into the workforce. It is here, says Dr. Schenker, where economic development and closing the workforce gap can begin. And Ulster BOCES, he says, is uniquely positioned to be the conduit that connects K-12 education, post-secondary education, and workforce leaders and helps them all pull forward in the same direction.

“We don’t shift perceptions about working in manufacturing or the trades with 24-year-olds. We do that with elementary students. We do that with their families, so they’re encouraged to align passion with opportunity,” says Dr. Schenker. “We don’t have a prepared workforce with the skills and competencies needed for careers in Ulster County by starting these discussions at the end of their education, we do that through curriculum and connections that start early. In this sense, our 20K plus K-12 youth and their families are the foundation to the economy.”

Dr. Schenker also emphasizes that earning a four-year degree is not the only way to contribute to a vibrant economy. For some, the journey may be earning a two-year degree. For others, the pathway from high school to work is a viable option. “Redefining the pathways and definitions of success so that each student has multiple options for pursuing and achieving success is key,” he says.

For these pathways to be successful, however, he says that students need to emerge from the K-12 system possessing the skills and experiences desired by colleges and employers. “It is here where Ulster BOCES is naturally positioned to ensure that the voice of both business/industry and higher education is mapped back into education as early as elementary and middle school.”

“Ulster BOCES can seamlessly integrate all of these pieces by being a single point-of-entry for business and industry to navigate the complex K-12 world,” says Dr. Schenker, explaining how requiring the economic community to interface with eight separate school districts is not an efficient way to do this work.

“We have a whole lot of passionate people in our county–who care a whole lot and are working really hard to implement solutions,” says Schenker. “However absent this centralized structure, this work will be isolated and disjointed and will be challenged to realize its true capacity and return on investment.”

Ulster BOCES already has decades-long experience in facilitating this education and business/industry collaboration through the development of its career and technical education curriculum, and most recently through the highly-successful Hudson Valley Pathways Academy program. “Deepening these discussions is a natural next step,” says Dr. Schenker.

Schenker, a native of Ulster County and veteran educator, has 21 years of educational experience and has been a part of Ulster BOCES since 2010. He took over the helm at Ulster BOCES in January 2023 and serves a dual role as the state education commissioner’s representative for the eight local component school districts in the Ulster BOCES region and as chief executive officer of Ulster BOCES.