Muscle Shoals City Schools: Impactful Problem-Solving

This is the second post in a six-part series recognizing the state finalists and overall grand prize winner of the Tri-State Best Practices Contest. Our first post featured Alabama state finalist Eufaula City Schools.


Many young people face a Catch 22 when they enter the job market: Employers want experience, but you cannot get experience unless someone hires you. In a continuing effort to provide Alabama students with real world experiences, the Alabama State Department of Education has partnered with the Alabama State Department of Labor to provide work-based learning programs to local school systems. However, in some cases, students were not afforded opportunities in skilled, technical environments due to employer restrictions on insurance of minors.

Origins of the Pathfinder Program

To alleviate this problem, Muscle Shoals City Schools (MSCS) piloted the Pathfinder Program at the Muscle Shoals Career Academy in August 2014. Pathfinder is a program designed to give business and industry the means to utilize trained and certified high school students in technical and skilled jobs. In addition to classroom and lab/shop training, Pathfinder students must also perform satisfactorily in the workplace to earn their high school diploma and dual enrollment college credits.

MSCS partnered with a local firm, Lyons HR to make it easier for businesses to participate in the Pathfinder Program. As the employer of record, administers payroll, remits related taxes and provides workers’ compensation and general liability insurance for all working students. With the Pathfinder Program, high school students may now work in positions previously ‘off limits.’ These training stations and positions allow students to gain meaningful experiences in a career they plan to pursue after high school while earning a paycheck and school credit.

Businesses that have partnered with the Pathfinder Program include Navistar, ECM Hospital, Helen Keller Hospital, Tasus and original program participant North American Lighting

Impact of the Pathfinder Program

The Pathfinder Program benefits high school students by placing them in an authentic employment position for which they have been trained, allowing them to earn a paycheck, and by helping them obtain a class credit. The program includes an acceptance process whereby students are required to complete an application and interview with both the Coordinator of the Pathfinder Program and the business representative. Once accepted, students complete a training agreement and training plan. The Coordinator maintains weekly contact with students and businesses to ensure on-going success.

The program has grown from one student working at North American Lighting in the Fall of 2014 to students working at a variety of businesses in North Alabama. The program has generated nearly $1 million of economic impact.Through the soft skills that the program teaches, employers report that the Pathfinder students often exceed their expectations. They report to work on time and rarely miss work days. They exhibit a good attitude and are eager to learn new skills. Additionally, attendance at school has seen improvements among students enrolled in this program.

The Pathfinder Program has earned recognition across Alabama and the country. At the time of inception, there was no other program like this one in the US. Now, other schools have toured MSCS facilities and replicated this model. Pathfinder Program Coordinator Tiffany Stonecipher and Career Academy principal Caryn Hairell speak at both state and national career and technical education conferences sharing this best practice with other school systems.
“We are honored that our Pathfinder Program at the Muscle Shoals Career Academy has been chosen as an Alabama finalist for the Tri-State Best K-12 Practices Award sponsored by LEAN Frog,” said Dr.Brian Lindsey, Muscle Shoals Superintendent. “Because the program provides students with opportunities for work experience and prepares them for life after graduation, it can greatly affect students’ lives. Your recognition of the Pathfinder Program’s success will foster its growth and help fund its future.”

MSCS students working at their respective skilled, technical jobs through the Pathfinder Program


The Pathfinder Program is a good case study of effective problem-solving in education.

  • Take time to identify problem: MSCS took the time to identify the problem that was preventing students from reaching their career goals.
  • Collaborate with others to find solution: Once the problem was identified (i.e., employer restrictions on insurance of minors), they partnered with Lyons HR to implement a solution
  • Test solution on a small scale: MSCS piloted the program to test the solution
  • Remove obstacles to success: Once it was clear the solution worked, MSCS removed obstacles to ensure success of the solution. For example, the system changed the Pathfinder Coordinator position from a 9-month employee to a 12-month employee so coordinator could stay connected with businesses year round.
  • Standardize success: The academy developed a standardized training agreement and training plan
  • Share Success: Data from the Pathfinder Program is recorded and evaluated to understand effectiveness and economic impact. This information is shared at each month’s board of education meeting


Muscle Shoals City Schools’ award winning practice has taken an employment conundrum for students and created a program that benefits both students and the local economy. “Because the program provides students with opportunities for work experience and prepares them for life after graduation, it can greatly affect students’ lives,” said MSCS Superintendent, Dr. Brian Lindsey. This best practice is growing and MSCS is challenging the community to help it grow even more. As Pathfinder Coordinator Tiffany Stonecipher remarked, I encourage each business that hears of this program to consider giving a young person the chance to be successful. More than anything, I want our young people to see a successful future in their hometown.

from left to right: Sherri Headrick (LEAN Frog), Celia Rudolph (MSCS Board President), Sally Howell Smith (AASB Exec Dir), Brian Lindsey (MSCS Superintendent), and Byron Headrick (LEAN Frog)

Congratulations Muscle Shoals City Schools and the muscle shoals career academy for your award-winning entry. We applaud you for using effective problem-solving skills to create solutions that positively impact your students and your community.

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Eufaula City and Muscle Shoals are the Alabama Finalists!

GREAT things are happening in Alabama public schools!  This past Friday, Eufaula City Schools and Muscle Shoals City Schools were recognized as the Alabama Finalists in the “Tri-State Best K-12 Practices” Contest.

Their titled entries — “From Crayons to Careers:  Intentional Preparation for College and Career Readiness” from Eufaula City Schools and the “Pathfinder Alabama Program” from Muscle Shoals City Schools – were selected through a double-judged process as the “best of the best” from a large, competitive field of high quality Alabama school system entries.

In the 4th year of the “best practices” contest in Alabama — sponsored by the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) and LEAN Frog — these two OUTSTANDING entries were publicly recognized and received a $1,000 cash prize at the AASB Annual Convention in Birmingham.  Both entries will compete against the finalists from Tennessee (co-sponsored with Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents/TOSS) and Louisiana (co-sponsored with Louisiana Association of School Executives and Louisiana Association of School Superintendents LASS/LASE) for the Grand Prize of $4,000 and regional bragging rights for impacting student achievement and promoting the effective and efficient use of public resources.

The Eufaula City Schools entry represented a deliberate move from a system of schools to a school system.  The school system reviewed activities across the district and tied all major activities and events to their “Dream Big, Innovate Often” theme.  All levels of leadership throughout the system worked together to develop a systematic approach to knowing what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and who should do it.  After the completion of events, leadership followed by recapping what was done and developing detailed notes for continuous improvement.

-from left to right: Sherri Headrick (LEAN Frog), Mitzi Clayton, Sally Howell (AASB), Otis Hill (ECS), Byron Headrick (LEAN Frog) and Louise Conner (ECS)

The Muscle Shoals City Schools entry addressed a national problem — students in Work-Based Learning programs not being afforded opportunities in skilled, technical environments due to employer restrictions on insurance of minors.  To alleviate the problem, Muscle Shoals piloted the Pathfinder program at their Muscle Shoals Career Academy.  They partnered with a human resources company to be the employer of record.  At the time of inception, there was no other program in the nation like it.  Now others are replicating this best practice across the country.

-from left to right: Sherri Headrick (LEAN Frog), Celia Rudolph (MSCS), Sally Howell (AASB), Brian Lindsey (MSCS), and Byron Headrick (LEAN Frog)


This year’s Alabama entries represented a vast range of departments/functional areas (from Child Nutrition to Career Tech), addressed numerous challenges schools/school systems face (from summer slide to lack of summer and other employment for students), and creatively used resources such as social media, scheduling, and buildings.  We thank all of those who took the time to enter the contest.  We applaud your work and we thank you for all you do on behalf of Alabama public education.

Stay tuned for feature posts on the Alabama finalists.

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