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IT, culinary arts launching as middle-college options

Students can earn associate degree, certificate

GRCC/Kent ISD — For Sawyer DeGraaf, a new middle-college IT program was too good of a deal to pass up.

Along with his courses at Kent City High School and in Kent Career Technical Center’s Networking and Cybersecurity program, he and seven other students are now taking an IT class online through GRCC. He is earning his first credits toward a computer support specialist associate degree that he can finish for free while still in high school.

“I was drawn in by the way it was advertised as a way for us to get our associate’s on the fast track; it’s very career-oriented for us, too,” Sawyer said. “I’m glad this focuses on (the Tech Center) too, where we are learning all this stuff that helps us in the career we are going for. I think it’s designed really well that way.”

Sawyer is also working on earning three IT certifications — which the Tech Center pays for — meaning he can rack up credentials at no cost to him that will help him get a job in network engineering or another area of IT. 

“I will have a lot of open prospects when I get into the career field,” he said.

The new IT program is part of Kent ISD’s Launch U program, which also offers opportunities to earn a general associate degree, or an associate degree or certificate in mechanical design. In addition, Launch U is adding a culinary arts program, for which students can earn a GRCC culinary certificate in culinary arts or bakery and pastries. 

Both are serving to align existing programs to middle-college opportunities, said Cary Stamas, director of Career Readiness at Kent ISD.

“(Our students) are jumping into the workforce sooner than if they started after college, and it’s all for free.”

— Kristen Doneth, Launch U coordinator
Launch U IT Program student Sawyer DeGraaf tinkers with a device at the Tech Center

A Streamlined Approach to Careers

Launch U, now in its fifth year, begins in 10th grade for students who attend school in their home districts for part of the day and college courses taught by GRCC instructors at the Tech Center. To finish the program, students complete a fifth year, technically still as high school students, on GRCC’s campus. About 140 students are currently enrolled.

The program is one of seven middle-college programs offered by GRCC and area high schools. The first, at Wyoming High School, was started in 2012.

The IT and culinary arts programs are a little different than original Launch U programs because they are done in tandem with the Tech Center’s Networking and Cybersecurity or Hospitality and Culinary programs, and students are recruited from those programs. Students complete their high school Tech Center classes while also taking GRCC courses, before transitioning fully into the GRCC programs. 

For example, IT students will take one online GRCC course in 11th grade and two in 12th grade while enrolled in the Tech Center program. (Students can earn 26 articulated GRCC credits for Tech Center IT classes even without joining Launch U.)

In the culinary program, juniors and seniors will take Tech Center classes three days a week and one GRCC course per semester two days a week. They will also spend a fifth year on GRCC’s campus to complete their certificates. Students have the option to take the GRCC course as part of Launch U or as a stand-alone opportunity.

“It’s really about meeting the needs of the workforce — student need as well as industry need,” Stamas said. 

Removing Barriers

With their associate degree or certificates, students are often ready to join the workforce or move on to a four-year college or additional training a year ahead of their peers and without accruing student debt. Barriers to earning a degree include cost and accessibility, and Launch U aims to remove those, Stamas said.

“It is designed to attract first-generation college students, under-represented populations, but it’s open to everyone,” he said. “It eliminates that debt and gets people quicker into the workforce with a credential that they keep for life. It right away elevates them up with experience and training.”

Added Kristen Doneth, Launch U coordinator, “Our students are challenging themselves by starting their college education. They are getting a jump start on their college education. They are jumping into the workforce sooner than if they started after college, and it’s all for free.”

Tech Center IT instructor Mike Pepper said he sees huge value for students who can come to him and other Tech Center instructors for help with their GRCC courses.

“I really think that first college class is tough for some kids, and it’s nice that they will be in our class and that we will be able to support them,” Pepper said.

Launch U IT student Aidan Byrne, a Sparta High School senior, plans to get his associate degree and potentially go onto a four-year college: “It seemed like a good opportunity to get it for free. It seemed pointless not to do it.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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