Struggling with depression and anxiety in high school, Amber Bigelow was ready to give up on a traditional education.
Going in and out of school to get the necessary treatment was taking a toll on her life.
“I was at my wits’ end,” Bigelow said. “I just wanted to drop out, get my GED and call it quits.”
It was then she learned the school was going to start an alternative program called Pathways on a trial basis. Reluctantly, she agreed to give it a try.
Today, she’s glad she did. She went on to graduate from Aquinas College’s nursing program and is now a registered nurse at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s hospital.
“In my opinion, it was a life-changing decision,” she said.
First a Program, then a School
In its seven-year history, Pathways has grown from an alternative program founded in 2012 to its own official school — Kenowa Hills Pathways High School — in 2017, with two dedicated full-time staff members. This non-traditional approach to learning began with 25 students and wound up with its first separate graduation ceremony of 45 graduates in May 2018.
“In 2017, a mindset shift occurred as we started preparing students for a future beyond high school as motivation for their high school diploma,” said Principal Jared Herron.
With that mindset came an array of preparational tools, such as long-term job shadow experiences, company visits, informational interviews and career portfolios. Students graduate having completed resumes, Educational Development Plans and personal budgets as well as coursework.
Pathways High School History
2012-13: Began as a program within Kenowa Hills High School with 25 students.
2013-14: Enrollment doubled to 50.
2014-15: Program moved into the back wing of the Middle School.
2017-18: While enrollment reached 80 students, Kenowa Hills Pathways High School was formed and recognized as its own school. Two dedicated full-time staff members hired.
May 2018: Pathways held its first separate graduation ceremony with 45 graduates.
2019-20: Program focuses on key core values: possess a hard-working attitude, model a workplace environment and create a family atmosphere.
Tales of Two Grads
Bigelow and fellow alum Caleb Jones recently talked with current Pathways students about their own career pathways.
As a 2015 Pathways graduate, Bigelow said she not only learned the core high school classes, she also learned how to be more open and honest in her communication and how to be a better communicator overall.
“I was always collaborating with teachers on weak areas and areas I felt I was strong in,” she explained. “They can see when you are struggling, and once I opened up about things I was struggling with personally or academically, they were always there to support me.
“I developed so many trusting relationships with my teachers that still hold to this day. This has helped me to make trusting relationships in my job with other colleagues and my patients and their families.”
Herron said Bigelow overcame many obstacles in order to succeed, was a classroom leader and inspirational student.
“Amber was an awesome student and really the motivation for what keeps us going,” Herron said. “Her many setbacks and challenges were embraced with a willingness to overcome.”
Another bonus for Bigelow was the ability to bring her newborn girl, Elia, to school during test days her senior year.
“I worked from home a lot, but whenever I had to take tests I brought her in with me; once or twice a week.”
A Turn in the Road
Bigelow said her teachers endlessly encouraged her to do the things she didn’t think were possible, like going to college or even finishing high school.
But it was one class that changed her path: a college prep course where students had to apply to at least two different colleges. “At this point, I had my daughter and didn’t think college was even an option anymore,” she said. But former counselor Lisa Piccard encouraged her to apply to the University of Detroit Mercy nursing program at Aquinas. She got in.
After graduating from there last May, she almost immediately began working at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids as an RN. Besides attending to patients’ medical needs, she said she works to help provide “quality compassionate care to all people” and “be the voice for my patients.”
From ‘Troublemaker’ to Apprentice
Caleb Jones, a June 2018 graduate of Pathways, said the school also helped him in many ways.
“Originally, the reason I switched to Pathways was because I was kind of a troublemaker during high school,” he said. “I barely had any credits to graduate and my counselor said ‘Pathways might be the best option for you.’
As with Bigelow, the option paid off. He is in a four-year apprenticeship at the Grand Rapids headquarters of Feyen Zylstra, a national electrical contractor with six branch offices in three states. He installs and services building management systems such as fire alarm systems, HVAC control systems and door security.
“During my junior year I had several friends in Pathways tell me it was a great program that allowed more one-on-one time with teachers, and a chance to job shadow and figure out a career for yourself,” explained Jones.
“They gave me several options to go on job shadows and helped me figure out what I wanted to do,” he added. “They also helped me fill out a resume and taught me how to speak in interviews.”
Herron said Jones was motivated and driven to complete classes and graduate on time, spending his senior year at Pathways and the Kent Career Tech Center.
“Caleb had a great personality and used his strengths to his advantage,” Herron said.
Their Advice for Students
Jones said to take advantage of the one-on-one time and the job shadows, “go on as many as possible. The best thing you can do is know what career you want to pursue as soon as possible.”
Bigelow said to go with your gut.
“Find what you are interested in and start searching from there,” she said. “I always knew I liked medical-related things, so I started searching for jobs that might fit that.
“You’ll be happier in the long run if you find something that matches what you are already interested in.”