‘My students will change the world’

Pilot program teaches fifth graders about world of work

Madeline Pekrul prepares her fifth grade class for the work world

Halfway through an afternoon lesson on career readiness, Madeline Pekrul asked her fifth grade class to practice their best business handshake and eye contact.

Within seconds, the Cedar View Elementary classroom was buzzing as they practiced greeting their friends while shaking their hands.

The activity is part of a morning meeting every day where students practice business handshakes “so they’re able to be professional,” Pekrul said of her class’ rather adult activity.

She is part of a career readiness pilot program through Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon ISDs and the West Shore ESD. Its aim is to help upper elementary students learn employability skills and all that they entail.

“Knowing responsibility is crucial to success in the workforce,” Pekrul said. “We are helping students learn what it means and looks like to be responsible on the job and in the classroom.”

Fifth grader Ella Rozek, in her first year studying this topic, said she likes the lessons.

“We’re talking about what it means to be accountable and are working on our career readiness,” said Ella, who wants to be a marketing manager in the future. “We fill out job applications every month for a specific job and write down why we’d be good for it.”

Fifth grader Evan Simons listens closely to his teacher Madeline Pekrul talk about career readiness

Collaboration of Business, School Leaders

Kent ISD Career Readiness consultant Eric Kelliher said the employability skills pilot stemmed from a subgroup of work from career readiness conferences developed by the ISDs and Talent 2025, a group of area CEOs focused on making  West Michigan a top 20 employment region by the year 2025. Because their pilot is based on employability skills, they named the group West Michigan Employability Skills Network (WMESN).

“We’ve developed a researched-based framework of core employability skills we believe all students should learn, understand, practice and apply by the time they leave high school,” Kelliher said. “We’ve vetted this list with various employers throughout the process, who have said these are the critical skills people of any age need in order to be successful in the workplace.”

Focusing on Responsibility

Pekrul said the lesson plan is unique and that students have connected to it.

“I think they need this; it’s super important,” said Pekrul, who’s in graduate school at Western Michigan University. “I want to teach them how to write checks, how to shake somebody’s hand. Those are the real-life skills that are going to get them the job. It’s not always about the GPA or college degree.”

She talks to students about different career avenues, such as trade schools, technical education and going to Kent Career Tech Center to learn a skill. “I am going to give them the skills to be successful,” she said.

Evan Simons said he’s learning about maturity as well.

“So far, we’ve been talking about what we are going to do when we grow up,” said Evan, who’s already had a business of his own. “Over the summer, I’ve been going to my aunt’s house and we did a lemonade stand. Me and my two cousins made 14 bucks.”

Fifth grader Hunter Murphy talked about his job helping his grandpa.

“We put wood into a chopper for my grandpa’s wood stove,” said Hunter, who wants to be an astronaut after learning about outer space in school.

Pekrul said a great aspect of the program is taking an industry tour to see what responsibility looks like in the workplace. Although program coordinators will match the classroom and business, she reached out to Harvey Lexus of Grand Rapids for her classroom’s paired business.

She said she wants all her students to know she values and supports their future career paths.

“I truly believe that my group of students will change the world.”

Fifth grade teacher Madeline Pekrul speaks in front of the Career Readiness bulletin board, which pictures her students and their career interests
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Cris Greer
For more than three decades, Cris Greer has been a wordsmith, working in the fields of journalism, advertising and marketing. Much of the past decade, he helped grow the MLive Statewide High School Sports desk as a supervisor, editor and reporter, which included eight newspapers in Michigan and mlive.com. Cris also was a freelancer for The Grand Rapids Press, The Advance and On the Town magazine for many years. A good portion of his early career was spent building and managing the copywriting team in the advertising department at Meijer, Inc., where he oversaw copywriting for print ads, mailers, brochures, signage, several dozen in-house magazines per year and much more. Read Cris's full bio or email Cris.

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