Yesterday, dozens of Pittsburgh CEOs and executives went back to school.

As part of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development‘s new CEO in the Classroom initiative, in partnership with the Grable Foundation, 30 industry leaders spread out across seven schools in the region to shadow students for the day. Their goal? To see what school is really like for local kids and gain insights that can be applied to the conference’s wide portfolio and its community and workforce development initiatives.

Participating schools included Brashear High School, City Charter High School, Butler Senior High School, Duquesne Elementary Center, Elizabeth Forward Middle School, Quaker Valley Middle School and Frazier High School in Fayette County.

“Recognizing that today’s students are the workforce of tomorrow, regional business leaders told us that they’d like to be more engaged with the K-12 education system, but they weren’t sure where or how to start,” said Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman, who is shadowing a student at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. “CEO in the Classroom is a solid first step toward better engagement with educators to develop solutions to the workforce challenges our region is facing.”

The initiative is based on Standford University’s Shadow a Student Challenge, and builds upon recommendations from the Allegheny Conference’s recent report, Inflection Point: Supply, Demand and the Future of Work in the Pittsburgh Region, which examined the region’s looming workforce shortage.

The study, first published in 2016 and updated in 2017, estimates that by 2025, the Pittsburgh region will have 80,000 unfilled jobs across a range of industries.

“The observations and insights gained are significant over the course of the day, and can really provide business leaders with a unique window into how students learn,” said Dr. Anthony Mooney, principal of Quaker Valley Middle School. “They will also experience what types of resources educators are using to prepare students for their next steps in life.”

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh after class at Duquesne Elementary Center in Rankin, Eat’n Park President and CEO Jeff Broadhurst — who also sits on the board of the Allegheny Conference — described the day as “energizing.”

“I saw the passion in the educators,” he said. “I give them all the credit.”

Other executives in Duquesne that day included Leslie Hyde, Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Risk Management and Annie Engle, Chief Legal Officer at Howard Hanna.

Broadhurst and Leslie Hyde with students in Sonia Ewell’s 5th-grade class. Photos provided by the Allegheny Conference.

The executives joined students from morning announcements through recess and lunch.

In particular, Broadhurst praised the school’s emphasis on developing emotional and interpersonal skills.

While Broadhurst emphasized that a single day in a classroom is not enough to make any sweeping pronouncements about the state of education in our region, he said the experience offers a valuable frame of reference as the conference plans future development programs.

“It’s hard to tell because I’m not an educator,” he says. “But the learning environment may need to change as the world adapts to new technology.”

In this respect, the Duquesne City School District is ahead of the curve. The school offers many courses via personalized lessons on tablets, as well as labs and maker spaces dedicated to coding and robotics.

“I was impressed with some of the technology they have, for sure,” said Broadhurst.

Gregg Behr, executive director of The Grable Foundation and co-chair of the Remake Learning Council, spent the day at Elizabeth Forward High School. He started with gym — “I had that sweaty glow in second period,” he said with a laugh — and continued through biology, anatomy, reading lab and math, even lunch.

His impression? “The kids are alright. In fact, the kids are pretty amazing,” he said. The eye-opening thing, he added, is how incredible teachers are and how schools are remarkably innovative.

“What the CEOs saw yesterday was, in fact, schools of varying socioeconomic status that are doing a lot to prepare kids for dynamic futures,” he said. “It’s not to say there’s not a whole lot still to be done.”

The second phase of the initiative comes in April when all 30 executives will gather to share their experiences and discuss ways to collaborate with local school systems.

“With the upcoming workforce challenges we have — shortfalls, really — it’s in our best interest to make sure that our kids have the tools, have the right educators and finally the passion,” Broadhurst said. “It’s up to us, as sort of leaders in the community, to make sure the schools have the right resources.”