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New academy preps students for hospitality, tourism careers

Virus crisis part of real-world learning process

In a class called Experiencing Great Customer Service at the brand-new Academy of Hospitality & Tourism at Ottawa Hills High School, a teacher and 15 students were discussing social media.

They had just completed an exercise called Customer Service and Social Media, in which each student was given a sheet to fill in based on responses from their classmates to 18 statements such as:

  • I use Twitter
  • I use Snapchat
  • I have made a video call using Skype
  • I use LinkedIn or another professional networking site
  • I use an online group deal site like Living Social or Groupon
  • I have made a customer service complaint on a social media site

At a certain point the conversation turned to the video call statement, and teacher Hannah Rizor recalled a time she had to do a job interview via video call.

“Oh gosh,” exclaimed a student. 

“Yeah, it was weird,” Rizor replied, “but now, especially with the virus going on, there’s a lot of people doing video conferencing.”

“The NBA got suspended,” a student called out.

“Yes,” Rizor said, “there’s a lot happening right now. How do you think this is impacting the hospitality and tourism industries?”

“Sports is entertainment,” said one student.

“You don’t want to go somewhere right now, like on an airplane,” said another.

A few more students added similar answers, Rizor nodding her head all the while.

“Right,” she said, “it’s affecting transportation, lodging, restaurants. The impact is enormous.”

‘We Have Fun, But We Mean Business’

Less than 12 hours later the impact hit Rizor and her students directly, when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed all K-12 schools to combat the spread of COVID-19. In a program designed around real-world and hands-on learning, the closure was an unexpected lesson in reality.

The academy aims to help students chart career paths in lodging, sports, entertainment, travel, food and event management. Culminating with a paid internship, the four-year curriculum prepares students for either college programs in hospitality and tourism, or jobs such as hotel managers, restaurant managers, concierges and meeting, convention and event planners.

Currently the program includes just ninth graders, and those students stay together as a cohort as they move through their daily schedule and subsequent grades. In future years incoming ninth graders will form their own cohort to move through the program.

Amere Vinson-Fitzpatrick initials a few boxes of a survey that shows her social media practice, like using a Mobile phone

Rizor’s 16 students — one was out ill this day — include six who signed up right away, before the class even began, and another 10 whom Rizor recruited from the halls of Ottawa Hills High School.

A’monie Jamison-Crawford was an early adopter.

“I signed up right away at orientation,” she recalled. “I was fresh out of middle school, getting ready to be a freshman, and I wanted to try everything.”

Now, some eight months later, the Ottawa Hills student said her choice was nothing but right, even with the K-12 shutdown.

“When I came here, we started off with six (students),” she said, “and after a while we got to know each other, know Miss Rizor, we started going on field trips to hotels. We know how to work with each other, and it’s actually fun.”

Fellow freshman Henry Francisco heartily agreed.

“I find I enjoy interacting with other people,” he said, “so this class has been enjoyable. We role play in class, we have fun, but also we mean business when we mean business.”

Thaddus Pratt presents his customer service project, in a class designed to help prepare students for college and careers

Etiquette Dinner, Guest Speakers and Field Trips

Rizor loves hearing such feedback from her students.

“In our class, I encourage an environment where students feel comfortable, have fun and enjoy learning,” she said. “As a college and career readiness program, this can be rigorous. Getting to know how the students prefer to be taught keeps them engaged. I encourage a lot of group work and partner assignments, so the students gain exposure to working together.”

Education outside the classroom is also a focus for the program. During the first semester, students attended an etiquette dinner, heard from industry guest speakers and visited local hotels.

The Academy of Hospitality & Tourism is in partnership with Grand Valley’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Department, Experience Grand Rapids, and AHC+Hospitality, a local company that runs numerous properties including the Amway Grand Plaza and JW Marriott hotels in downtown Grand Rapids.

Those partnerships give students access to real-world, valuable experiences, Rizor said, but the collective also is getting statewide attention. During the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism in February, Experience Grand Rapids won the 2020 Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism Collaboration in the tourism education and training category as a result of the collaboration.

It was a great moment, said Rizor, who has a bachelor’s degree from Ball State University in Hospitality and Food Management and has worked in various capacities in the hotel industry, including management positions in Muskegon and Chicago.

“Our students were welcomed on stage in front of hundreds of industry professionals,” she said, “boosting their confidence and reassuring them that the community is investing in their success as well.”

Manuel Hodges talks about students’ use of social media

National Academy Foundation Adds Credibility

Also partnering with Ottawa Hills on the new venture is NAF, (formerly known as the National Academy Foundation), a network of education, business and community leaders with an emphasis on getting high school students ready for either college or careers.

Students in the program take regular Ottawa Hills courses such as English, algebra, biology, chemistry and Spanish. Each semester they also take a course specific to the hospitality and tourism program, such as Principles of Hospitality and Tourism, Hospitality Marketing, Event Planning, Sustainable Tourism and more.

Rizor said partnering with NAF adds credibility to the first-year program.

“They provide excellent sources of information,” she said, “and allow the instructors to be creative with administering the curriculum based on the needs of the students.”

She noted that NAF has been working since 1980 on its academy model in which small learning communities are created within existing high schools.

According to NAF, in the 2019-2020 school year over 110,000 students are attending 620 of its academies across 34 states, and 2019 figures showed a 99% graduation rate with 86% of those graduates planning to go to college.

Promotional materials for the Academy of Hospitality & Tourism tout a career-focused curriculum and a variety of practical and collaborative projects.

Through the NAFTrack Certification assessment system, students earn certification by passing exams, projects and internships, demonstrating to universities and employers that they are both college and career ready. Many top companies use NAFTrack Certified Hiring, which benefits certified student applicants. Companies give special consideration to those students for job opportunities and other career support.

Quentin Spencer, front, and Henry Francisco complete their social media survey

Numerous Career Opportunities

“The importance of this is that we have proven, established metrics and evaluation systems to ensure the program is performing and students have opportunities to be successful.” Rizor said.

Rizor says there are numerous career opportunities in the hospitality and tourism industries, and not just minimum wage jobs.

“In hospitality and tourism, it is very important to understand the roles and responsibilities of the various employees. In order to be an effective manager, it’s imperative to gain the experience along with applying the soft skills.

“When the students entered this academy in the fall, they had little to no exposure to the hospitality industry,” she added. “Each student has unique qualities that could make them effective managers in the future, and my hope is for them to learn and recognize their strengths so they’re able to apply them in the future.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and also is a general assignment reporter and the point person for the SNN Facebook and Twitter feeds. He hails from Exeter, Ontario, but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985. He is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop! Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both freelance writing and public relations work, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level. In the summer of 2019, he began his own freelance writing and communications business. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children.  Read Phil's full bio or email Phil.

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