You’d be hard-pressed to find a teenager who cartwheels out of bed on a Monday morning in a rush to get to high school. Despite that lack of enthusiasm, many students still see value in their education. They meet expectations and put in the necessary work because they know that high school is the stepping stone to whatever it is they want to do next.
Not every student falls into that category, however. There’s a rather sizable percentage who disengage from their education during their freshman year.
“There are some kids who just walk through the motions for four years,” says Ann Franz, director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance. “They’re disengaged and unaware of how school connects with their future careers.”
To provide some early intervention for this group of students, Denmark High School, with the support of the NEWMA K-12 Task Force, is piloting its own Career Academy, which provides a hands-on, project-based learning environment for students at risk of failing to earn enough credits to graduate high school.
Students enrolled in the Career Academy will make frequent visits to area employers and workplaces and job shadow employees. This not only gets students out of the classroom, but also gives them a better sense of what certain occupations involve.
“Hopefully, they see a certain job and think, ‘I think I like that!’” says Denmark High School Principal Oran Nehls. “Then, they can start to get some direction in terms of what they need to do to get there in the future.”
Nehls is upfront that the Career Academy program is very much in its infant stages and there still are plenty of details and logistics to be worked out. However, he knew it was important to get the program started sooner rather than later to step in and help get floundering students back on track.
“As teachers, we know that there are certain kids that, based on their behavior and performance in class, may potentially be students who are credit deficient in their senior year,” Nehls says. “We need to offer something to them earlier on to motivate them, give them a sense of purpose and hopefully give them a direction beyond high school.”
While the Career Academy focuses on different careers and options after high school, the attention isn’t placed on high school students nearing graduation. The Career Academy is targeted more toward ninth- and 10th-graders because the goal of the program is to engage students early on.
“That way we can get to them earlier than their junior or senior year when we’re battling things that have already been entrenched in them,” Nehls says. “It can be difficult to undo those things.”
This alternative learning option is on track to address the challenge of engaging students who would otherwise struggle. But the Career Academy does more than just solve a problem — it also presents a workforce solution for area employers.
In a meeting of the NEWMA K-12 Task Force, Nehls noted 18 percent of Denmark High School’s senior class didn’t know what was next for them after high school. It was at that point that the manufacturers on the task force realized this was an untapped labor resource for them. Those students could become their employees — provided they could get to them and engage them.
That’s the benefit of the Career Academy. For companies that choose to become involved and provide job shadows and similar experiences, they can begin those conversations with students early on and perhaps recruit new, young talent to their own workforces.
Considering that 85 percent of NEWMA’s members reported they were concerned with the aging workforce and the amount of talent leaving their companies, it’s a chance they don’t want to pass up.
“The Career Academy is an opportunity to provide awareness because kids don’t know what
they don’t know,” Franz says.
Manufacturing is a point of emphasis for the program, but it’s not the sole focus. Nehls’ goal is to have students explore a wide variety of career paths — from manufacturing, culinary arts and finance to health care and marketing.
The Career Academy is new, which means it undoubtedly will continue to shift and evolve as leaders learn what works and what doesn’t. But, regardless, Nehls is inspired that they’re taking steps to focus on the engagement of students early on in their high school careers.
“There’s a group of students who we’re not serving as well as we should be,” Nehls says. “I can’t have these students feel like the door is just shut to them. We need a way to give them some hope and a plan.”