What do you want to be when you grow up? For students in St. Vrain, they do not have to wait very long to start exploring career opportunities. As St. Vrain continues to blend the lines between high school and postsecondary life, students are able to explore career opportunities, earn credits and industry certifications, and receive college degrees – all while in high school.
When you walk through the halls of the Career Development Center (CDC) you will find students dressed in various uniforms depending on their passion – chefware, heavy safety gear, lab coats, photography packs, or tall mud boots. As Longmont High Engineering II student, Priscilla Vargas, says, “the CDC is a career playground for students in St. Vrain.” Through the Career Development Center, students have the opportunity to pursue eight career pathways: Advanced Manufacturing Technology, Agriscience, Automotive Technology, Engineering Technology and Machining, Health Sciences (Certified Nursing Assistant, Dental Assistant, Sports Medicine, and Emergency Medical Technician), Interactive Media Technology, ProStart (Culinary Arts), and Welding Fabrication Technology. Priscilla’s interest in engineering was sparked during a local college visit and her desire to be able to create what society needs to propel industry and innovation.
At 15 years old, Priscilla is the youngest employee at Lexmark International, Inc., a company that manufactures laser printers and imaging products, through a highly competitive apprenticeship she received with CareerWise Colorado. This year, there were only six manufacturing positions available within the area, and she and four other St. Vrain students were awarded the spots. Her teacher, Neil Shupe, shares that St. Vrain prepares students for esteemed programs like these by supporting them with resume building sessions and practice interviews. Priscilla shows up to work, puts on her steel-toed boots and a canvas smock uniform, and works on the logistics team within shipping and receiving in the warehouse. Her apprenticeship will provide her experience within indirect and direct purchasing, production scheduling, inventory planning, creating contracts, and managing supplier relationships. In addition to receiving hands-on job experience, she is also paid above minimum wage to perform her duties.
Priscilla is a part of the new Advanced Manufacturing Academy at the Career Development Center. Shupe, the program’s director, explains the program has been developed because of growth trends in the area, “manufacturing is the largest growing industry between this area and Boulder.” The Advanced Manufacturing Academy provides students with hands-on experience in welding, machining, electronics, and optics. Shupe adds, “students graduate from our pathway programs with industry certifications, and are able to jump entry-level positions and become managers in a short time after graduating high school.”
Priscilla says her experience at the Career Development Center is helping her decide what is the best fit for her future. “When these technical opportunities are available to high school students, we are able to explore what is right for us as students and what is right for our future without taking on student loans.”
Advancing our Future Workforce
“It is our job to ensure that all students are ready and prepared to pursue high-level careers and succeed in any postsecondary position,” says Eric Berngen, coordinator of programs and workforce development at the Innovation Center.
Project-based learning is crucial to postsecondary readiness and the Innovation Center has been at the forefront of this movement. Berngen rattles off examples of real-world, problem-solving experiences students are receiving through the Innovation Center. He mentions the underwater robotics team and their collaboration with the Denver Zoo to conduct research on an endangered frog in Peru, as well as the group of students enrolled in the Aeronautics program who are building advanced drones for national companies.
“Our goal is to take the work that is being done in the classroom and make it into a reality through genuine workforce development and strategic partnerships,” says Berngen. P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) – a program which allows students to earn a high school diploma as well an associate degree through partnerships with local community colleges and industry partners – is just one example of what this looks like in practice. In the first three years of its existence, 152 Skyline High students earned over 2,400 college credits with 135 IBM mentors involved in the program. This past summer, there were 29 St. Vrain interns at IBM and St. Vrain students received feedback that they were outperforming many of the college interns.
This year, St. Vrain launched a second P-TECH at Frederick High focused on biochemistry with partners including Aims Community College, Avexis, Tolmar, and Agilent Technologies. As St. Vrain continues to map out blueprints for these real-world, skills-based experiences, the P-TECH program and other high-level opportunities will continue to grow in schools across St. Vrain.
Growing Our Own
For students interested in a career in education, there is yet another pathway program available where students gain hands-on teaching experience within the classrooms of St. Vrain Valley Schools – P-TEACH or Pathways to Teaching. Through P-TEACH, students enrolled in the program gain college credits for field experience with exposure to niche subjects such as special education, STEM, early childhood, and cultural awareness. Students also attend classes at the Innovation Center throughout the program and graduate from high school with 21 college credits under their belt from the University of Colorado Denver.
Often referred to as a teacher pipeline, the program’s intent is to inspire St. Vrain-educated students to head back to the classrooms of the school system in which they were raised, and be equipped with the skills to teach the next generation. Many students will be highly qualified to teach subjects that require a unique skill set such as bilingualism, special education, and STEM.
The program began after the district was awarded a $125,000 grant through Early Milestones Colorado and then it was expanded to include more teaching areas when it was awarded a second $125,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Lifelong educator and P-TEACH coordinator, Wendy Howenstein, has seen her P-TEACH students evolve through the program saying, “slowly, as they start sharing what they are doing in classrooms and as they are taking on more responsibilities and understanding what is happening in the classroom, they change. They become more confident and they generate their own teaching ideas.” P-TEACH students are assigned teacher mentors and have additional hands-on experience through St. Vrain’s Community Schools and Project Launch programs, where they are paid to assist teachers with curriculum and educational activities.
In an ever-evolving, fast-paced world, it is imperative to offer programs that reflect the world beyond the classroom walls. “These programs are vital to the changing landscape of education today,” reflects Howenstein. “The world is moving so fast and the cost of higher education is increasing. Students want to and need to have the opportunity to physically explore the different fields that are out there before they graduate from high school to save them time and money. Offering hands-on opportunities where students are in a classroom, or a biolab, or an airplane simulator, have made our students soar.”