“It Starts With Us.” The phrase is ubiquitous throughout Mobile County, and the message being communicated to the public is constant and clear: In trying to affect change in the life of the community’s young people, the impetus will begin within the Mobile County Public School System itself and incorporate the partnership and assistance of various community stakeholders.’

Recognizing a new paradigm is needed in how school systems confront and overcome two of the main ills plaguing education systems across the country — high dropout rates and the high number of those who graduate without career-ready skills and abilities — MCPSS has launched what is proving to be an effective full-frontal assault on these problems.

The advent of “Signature Academies” is a byproduct of the new paradigm. Designed to give a number of area high schools a specific career focus, Signature Academies will allow students to be emerged in various career fields, and in some cases provide them certified training to allow them to enter the workforce in certain fields immediately upon graduation.

Recently, I was riding on a school bus with other staff members from Murphy High School to take part in a program designed to expose Murphy educators and administrators to the workings of what will be one of the school’s premiere business partners: APM Terminals. Tucked away like a hidden gem on the banks of the Mobile River, APM Terminals is one of those businesses many in Mobile may know little about, but those involved in business and commerce in the city are very well aware of and glad to have here in the Port City.

A global trade giant, APM Terminals is a multi-billion dollar company operating out of 39 countries across five continents. APM Terminals Mobile, one of 63 such APM facilities, is part of a modern port and cargo-handling infrastructure that places Mobile in the enviable position of becoming a major player in the ever-increasing and expanding global trade network.

Sitting in a meeting room listening to a presentation from the head of APM Terminals Client Services, Denson White, his enthusiasm and optimism about his company’s presence in Mobile and what their partnership with Murphy could mean was palpable.

“It’s very important that APM establishes a connection with the community,” White noted.

International trade is going to continue to expand and transform Mobile, and by partnering with a school like Murphy, White believes APM Terminals will build a relationship with the community, which he feels is important, while also exposing students and staff to a sector of commerce that will become more and more a local catalyst for job opportunities, not only at APM, but throughout the Port of Mobile and with other connected entities.

For example, White explained how container terminals in New Orleans and Houston are tapped out with little to no room for growth. Conversely, APM Terminals Mobile is only at a quarter of its potential size, and in the next five to 10 years is expected to reach its maximum size.

Gene Montgomery, dean of academies at Murphy, sees this as a win-win for all sides. Students will be exposed to a world of opportunities right around them, and many of them will be surprised and motivated to find that, rather than packing up after high school or college and leaving Mobile, a career and future of prosperity may exist right here. Awareness and exposure for our kids is so important, he noted.

Also present was Jabaria Jenkins, career academy partnership coordinator for the Mobile Area Education Foundation. Jenkins stated such relationships are vital if schools are going to be successful at transitioning students to the real world. She would know.

Before her current position with the MAEF, she worked for 15 years in the corporate world as a human resources professional.

“I knew that from a business standpoint the ‘pipeline’ or education system needed to be positively impacted because so many young people I was interacting with just didn’t get it,” she said.

Whether it was students with poor life and workforce skills, or those not having a clue what they wanted to do, or what it took to get to their academic and career goals, Jenkins felt things needed to change. Now in her role with the MAEF she helps enact programs and business/education partnerships crucial to reforming the education system.

Policy expert John Hope Bryant recently noted, “We must connect this next generation with a meaningful role in the workforce, through more private-sector mentorship, cradle-to-career pathways, and positive role modeling in schools and communities. We can get students excited about the connection between their education, their ambitions, and their potential career.”

Visiting APM Terminals, I was able to see more clearly that it does “start with us” — all of us. From the looks of it, many in the Mobile community have recognized it and are stepping up to the plate to hopefully transform Mobile into what a shared interest and cooperative effort can accomplish: hope and promise for our young and the community as a whole.