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Educators and business leaders team up to help build school-to-work pipeline

Aim is to increase graduates’ opportunities and strengthen economy 

Kent ISD — Work-based learning, talent profiles and career and technical education were just some of the strategies Kent County educators and business leaders explored during a recent event designed to help to increase career awareness and exploration as well as training opportunities for students.

The program was part of Kent ISD’s CareerPrep 2030, which was launched last year with a focus on how to connect students to potential careers, help grow the local business economy, and build a pipeline of local talent to help fill current and expected employment vacancies.

Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler (courtesy)

Throughout the summer, community, school and business leaders met in three working groups centered on these career-and business-oriented topics, along with how to expand the pipeline for students to have career opportunities, said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler. He co-chairs CareerPrep 2030 along with The Right Place President and CEO Randy Thelen and Steelcase Vice President Chris Bardeggia.

Throughout the fall, concepts such as work-based learning and career and technical education (CTE) were vetted by the CareerPrep 2030 team, Koehler said. 

“Now, after these ideas have been vetted, they are sharing them with all of our region’s educators and some of our business community members,” Koehler said, “so that they can go out and understand how we can apply this in our own local districts and which of these strategies are going to best suit our needs — because there is no one strategy that will fill every district’s needs or meet every student’s needs.”

Kent ISD Director of Career readiness Cary Stamas (courtesy)

In the March event, more than 100 participants moved through three different sessions, each focused on specific topics about talent profiles and portfolios, CTE and work-based learning.

The purpose of the event, which was at the Kent Career Tech Center, was to give participants an opportunity to explore different options and to see how other districts have implemented these programs, Cary Stamas, Kent ISD director of career readiness, told a group of participants.  

“It is really a tasting of different things,” Stamas said. “We are hoping that you saw something that you might want to try in your own district.”

Building a Talent Portfolio

In 2018, Michigan made a change in requirements for an educational development plan (EPD) or talent portfolio, designed to help students plan for their future while in high school. Starting in seventh grade, students are required to start building an EPD, which includes their interests, career assessment results, career goals and educational/training goals. Students are able to update the document as they move through school.

School officials from Sparta were one of the groups that demonstrated the talent profiles and portfolios they have been using to help students build their EPD. 

“One of the things we did was state that the district requires an EPD to graduate,” said Carol Deuling-Ravell, a teacher and career intern program coordinator for Sparta Public Schools. “This creates a sense of ownership and response in that the students understand that to graduate, they need to have this.”

One of the keys in developing the district’s talent portfolio was assuring that students could access it anytime throughout their career, Deuling-Ravell said. They found that solution in Google, as there is enough space for students to work on their talent portfolio and be able to take it with them after graduation, she said.

Sparta’s talent portfolio includes six folders: resume and cover letter; accommodations; career interest; test scores; course plan and extracurricular activities; and hobbies, awards and honors. During their school career, students place items into the appropriate folder, Deuling-Ravell said, so that when they graduate they have all the EPD requirements fulfilled. 

Getting Hands on With STEM

To get their students more interested in math, Muskegon High teachers Kimi George and Kate Perkins added CTE by using construction concepts, where students apply math concepts to build projects such as small boxes or backyard sheds. 

Through this process, students have gained a better understanding of how such math concepts as pythagorean theorem work in real-life scenarios while also gaining soft skills in construction, George said. 

Building on that, Kent ISD consultant Du Bui discussed classroom STEM projects, which are often connected to CTE learning, that encourage design thinking. An example was a North Godwin Elementary project where students collaborated in designing something that could transport materials and school supplies to and from school. 

“Students took ownership of the design-thinking process by engaging with each other and learning what students carried to school, what they wanted to bring to school and what teachers asked them to bring to school,” Bui said. “Last month, educators learned firsthand from Steelcase how design thinking is used in real-life applications.”

One of the first projects Bui said he worked on as a STEM consultant was with Kentwood’s Crossroads Alternative High School, which helped students develop soft skills in problem-solving with the question of how to make their school more welcoming. 

Providing Ways for Students to Learn at a Worksite

For Jeff Wilson, a Kent City counselor, he began the process of developing a work-based learning program to offer students more opportunities.

“We are a small district with a graduating class of about 90 students, Wilson said. “It used to be that anyone from Kent City who wanted to attend the Kent Career Tech Center could, but over the years, we have had about a third of our students who were interested get in.”

Wilson said interest in the Tech Center programs has grown over the years with more students applying. So he reached out to Kent ISD Director of Workforce Development Ryan Graham about creating a work-based program. Graham provided him with the necessary forms that Wilson said he could simply “just put our school letterhead on.”

This year, Wilson has had six students participate in the program with five planning to stay with the businesses they are working with after graduation.

Cedar Springs has had a work-based program for a few years and has seen similar success, said Ronald Behrenwald, the district’s director of post-secondary success. Cedar Springs has 31 students participating in its work-based learning program, of which 27 students were offered jobs. Behrenwald said 25 of them took the job placements. 

Ronald Behrenwald, Cedar Springs director of post-secondary success, talks about his district’s work-based learning program

Behrenwald said students can only be placed in a work-based setting if it aligns with the possible careers they are exploring. In other words, a student cannot simply work at a fast-food restaurant because they want to, he said, noting they also cannot work at a business owned by their parents. 

To assure students are not simply painting walls or getting coffee, Behrenwald has developed a list of skills that employers are given to assure that students are learning.

“The advantage of that for the student is that if they do not end up working at that business, they have something for other employers that shows the skills they learned while at that job,” Behrenwald said. 

Read more: 
New math class uses real-world applications
Students inspired by Barbie, Harry Potter in STEM projects

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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