A holistic approach to college, career planning
WATERLOO - Before breaking for the summer, 500 eighth-grade students from all four Waterloo middle schools gathered at the Waterloo Career Center located in Central Middle School to learn more about the career pathways that will be available to them as high school students.
The Waterloo School District has made career counseling and getting students interested about their future opportunities a priority.
“Exposing our middle school students to the career center builds a connection and gets them interested now,” said Central Middle School principal Alissa Richards.
Rachel Savage, Bunger Middle School principal, agrees that the exposure to future opportunities motivates students and helps them see the importance of getting off to a strong start as freshmen.
“We want students to get excited now and understand that these opportunities won’t be available if they get behind in core credits,” Richards said. “Students see that they need to do well in their core classes, because if they have to retake classes, they won’t be able to take advantage of these real-world learning and work experiences.”
The Waterloo Career Center, which currently offers career pathways in healthcare and digital graphics, wasn’t something Waterloo Schools entered into lightly. Planning for college and careers readiness, including the expansion of career and technical education opportunities, started back in 2012.
“We didn’t want to put the cart before the horse,” said Crystal Buzza, executive director of professional and technical education for Waterloo Schools, whose main focus is on building and fostering relationships with business and industry throughout the Cedar Valley region.
“We didn’t want to rush and exhaust resources on a multi-million dollar building that didn’t meet anyone’s needs. Decisions were made in a very thoughtful way. The Waterloo School District had a vision to create opportunities for students to be career-ready, and they did not lose that vision. We wanted to take our time and get it right.”
Over a three-year period, Waterloo Schools analyzed student data, restructured career planning to ensure it was not siloed, created a district plan, and made a recommendation to the community in 2015 for a stand-alone career center to eventually house 30 career pathway programs. The hope was to fund the career center through a bond referendum. Unfortunately, the bond issue didn’t pass.
“When the bond referendum failed, we had to pull back and use our resources wisely,” Buzza. “Central Middle School, which was originally built as a high school, had additional space that could be used.”
Working on a very tight timeline, Waterloo Schools finalized their decision to move forward with career pathways in health care and digital graphics by the end of the 2015-16 school year. Construction began at Central Middle School in July 2016 and was open for business on Aug. 25.
“It was definitely a fast turn-around,” Buzza said. “But we had done the research, developed career pathways, and had a plan in place. By starting smaller we could start sooner.”
The health-care career pathway includes an 11-bed lab with a classroom. Students in this pathway follow the state’s certified nurse assistant curriculum. The digital graphics pathway focuses on graphic design and provides the students the opportunity to earn Adobe certification. Both pathways enable students to earn college credit through Hawkeye Community College.
Three new pathways are being added for the 2017-18 school year based on local industry needs and student interest – advanced manufacturing, early childhood education, and information technology.
To support these pathways and provide meaningful career advising to students, Waterloo Schools completely restructured how they handled college and career planning.
To allow for more focus on college and career planning, responsibility was moved from school counselors to newly created career coordinator positions -- educators who spend half their day teaching and half their day working with students, counselors and administrators on career planning. They look at how all students are doing, help them stay on track, lead career experiences, and infuse career and technical education with core courses.
The coordinator team consists of three coordinators at East High School and four at West. Educators from all areas are on these teams – Career and Technical Education (CTE), math, English, social studies and science. It was a big change, and one that teachers didn’t initially embrace.
“Getting teacher buy-in took persistence,” said Jane Kemp-Ulfers, who co-leads the district’s Career and Academic Planning Committee with Buzza. “The biggest problem for teachers was that it disrupted some of their classroom. They have more preps, and core teachers now have some infusion of career and technical education in their lessons.”
For example, one teacher had a lesson in poetry using the pain scale – infusion of English with health care. In another class, students created a carpet cleaner and they had to figure out the chemical compound and use math to determine ratios and the square footage it could cover.
While all districts in Iowa have someone overseeing CTE, not all schools have someone like Buzza, a non-educator from the outside with business and industry contacts. She works with counselors, but doesn’t oversee them. Buzza also does not have anything to do with curriculum – teachers and career coordinators handle that. It allows Buzza to focus on career connections.
“I maintain a strong relationships with our local Chamber,” Buzza said. “It’s how I stay on top of the local job opportunities and business needs. These relationships foster community support and help with setting up field experiences, speakers, job shadowing and internships in addition to career pathways.”
When teachers are looking for different career experiences for their classes, they work with their career coordinator team. In addition, the district’s newly formed Career and Academic Planning Committee will help shape and monitor career and college readiness opportunities for students. This 10-member committee, consisting of administrators, career coordinators, school counselors and information technology professionals, also researched and came to consensus on which state-approved career information system best met the district’s needs.
“The most important thing for us was the flexibility of the system,” Buzza said. “We have a lot of students who move from building to building and we needed a system that could work with that. It also had to work with our student data system and provide a parent portal. We took our time to research the options to ensure the system we selected would meet the needs of students as well as the district.”
The district’s planning, preparation, and ultimate decision to house industry-driven career pathways in the career center has helped to build a strong robust career pathway system that is sustainable through industry support and is growing through student interest.
“My mom is a nurse, so I have always been interested in going into nursing, too,” Jaida said.
Lamarion has heard that being a male in the nursing field provides a lot of job opportunities.
“I just really like working with people,” he said. “That is what appeals to me about nursing.”
“All the work and planning has been worth it,” Buzza said. “We see the light bulb turn on for these students. School makes sense to them and they tell us that they like school. And for students to like school is exactly what we need to keep them on track.”
Through the district’s journey, officials provide the following tips for other school districts looking at the possibility of a career center to provide career pathway opportunities:
- First and foremost, build the foundation first. Look at your student interest surveys and be very aware of what their interests are. Do not go with a “if you build it, they will come” philosophy because if you start with the wrong end in mind, they may not come.
- Get in contact with your local chamber of commerce or economic development and talk to them about their needs. Make sure you are aware of all of the businesses and opportunities in your area. Know what your number one industry is and what skills sets students need to prepare.
- You need parent buy-in. Involve parents in your taskforce. Find out which parents own small businesses and get them on board.
- For professional development, get your teachers out to businesses. Field trips for teachers are just as important as for students.
- Don’t be in a rush to get a career center up and running. It doesn’t happen overnight. Waterloo took a full year of planning how to deliver high school differently to make it more engaging and relevant.
- Understand that teachers will be nervous about change. Try to show that it is just a new way of delivering material. HF 2392, the new CTE law, has helped to show that it is a statewide initiative and it isn’t going away. What the high school does directly aligns with the bill and with Future Ready Iowa.
- Partner with other area districts. Waterloo partners with neighboring school district Cedar Falls, whose Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) offers pathways in engineering, teaching and web communications. This way programs aren’t duplicative and students can attend pathways in either district.
- Going to national conferences, such as the National Association for Career and Technical Education Information (NACTEI), helps people see that there is a bigger picture – it isn’t just Iowa. It is just like taking teachers to businesses sites – it is important to do for a frame of reference.
- Always remember it is about the students. It makes all the blood, sweat and tears worth it.
- Form a school team to oversee college and career planning
- Develop a district plan
- Develop individualized career and academic plans for each student
- Select and implement a career information system that meets state board standards