Two local school programs are working to increase access to career-focused experiences for students in grades 7-12. The Extended Learning Program, which serves 250 middle schoolers across Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS) and Harwood Union High School (HUHS), is now in its second year. Next Step, based at HUHS for high school students, has been running for decades.
Both programs offer job shadowing, worksite tours, career fairs, internships and other experiences that aim to integrate career exploration with school curriculum.
NEW WAYS OF LEARNING
Under both programs, students can earn class credits for completing internships with Vermont organizations and businesses. Rachael Potts, who has worked with HUHS students in Next Step for 17 years, said that students are currently interning at Mad River Metal Works, Hunger Mountain Children’s Center, Sugarbush Resort, Beta Technologies, The Valley Reporter, and others.
Katie Kenney, who runs the Extended Learning program, said that five middle schoolers are currently doing internships – bike repair at Bicycle Express in Waterbury, maintenance work at the Green Mountain Valley School, and others. She said that
a student may approach her with an interest to intern, or a teacher will recommend a student who may be struggling with academic work and looking for new ways of learning.
Potts said that internships can increase students’ sense of self-worth, as they often have the experience of finding something they are really good at or getting excited about learning for the first time in a while.
BEYOND SCHOOL WALLS
Both programs also offer shorter-term job shadowing and worksite visits for students. Kenney took students to visit an architect’s studio, a welding shop, the WCAX newsroom and other sites. Potts’ students have shadowed with a broker at Mad River Valley Real Estate and a respiratory therapist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Some high school students can do paid apprenticeships too, but Potts said that these are harder to facilitate as most employers in the trades want their employees to have a high school diploma.
Getting students involved in trade-work can take many forms, Kenney said. In early 2023, she got a grant to send five middle school students to learn welding in program that Fayston-based Sculpture School hosted at a hangar at the Sugarbush Airport. The tuition was funded by the McClure Foundation, which works with the Vermont Department of Labor to identify promising future work opportunities and make education and training pathways for these forms of work more accessible.
Potts said that “it’s important for students to get outside of the school building, but it’s also important to bring the community inside.” Both programs invite students to ‘career labs’ where they can hear from local professionals about their career paths.
Potts recalled inviting a nurse, a sports journalist, a chemical engineer, a construction manager, and an investment analyst in past years. Kenney said that last year she hosted 22 Vermont professionals, including a graphic designer, a jewelry designer, a dentist, and a realtor.
At times, these speakers will connect their work to what students are learning in a particular class. Of work-based learning, the state says that pairing students with community professionals exposes students to postsecondary opportunities at the same time as it can reinforce their school-based learning. “For many,” the state wrote on their website, “understanding ‘why do I need to know this?’ provides motivation for more learning.”
Kenney said that bridging what students are learning in classroom setting to what’s happening in the outside world is “the biggest thing that’s happening in the program.”
Much of this programming across the state emerged out of Act 77 or the Flexible Pathways Initiative, which was passed in 2013 in order to increase rates of secondary school completion and postsecondary continuation in Vermont. The initiative includes a host of programs and strategies, like Personalized Learning Plans, dual enrollment, and work-based learning.
But Ellen Berrings, who has worked with students in the Next Step program for 23 years, said that HUHS has been engaged in career-focused programming long before Act 77 got passed – at least since 1985 when students could earn class credits for taking on jobs in the community. She said that the program started as one of the state’s first school-based employment programs, and that when she joined in 2000, they expanded it to include opportunities beyond gaining work experience.
Potts said that HUHS staff were instrumental in developing the state’s Flexible Pathways guidelines – that while Potts edited the state’s manual for work-based learning, Berrings sat on the legislation task force.
Career-focused programming is not as common at the middle school level, Kenney said, but Vermont district middle schools may be working to change that. Recently, she met with staff at Montpelier’s U-32 to offer guidance on how they might implement pathways for career exploration.
A WINDING PATH
Potts studied community health education in college, intending to work for an international health organization. When she finally did an internship during her senior year, she realized she didn’t like the work. “I wish I had some experience and not just an idea of what I thought it would be like,” she said.
Later, she worked with pregnant and parenting teens living in detention centers in California, then at a youth job center in Vermont before earning a master’s in Special Education. She found that she loved helping kids to think about career possibilities and plan their futures.
Kenney, who taught kindergarten in Colorado before working as a special educator at CBMS, said that she wanted to help kids find new ways of learning. “I was the kid in school who just needed something different. I just didn’t learn in the traditional way. I was the square peg in the round hole.”
“The idea is to understand that there are so many opportunities out there, in terms of educations and training,” Potts said. “It’s not just about college for us -- it’s really about expanding that idea. Yes, there’s two- and four-year degrees, and there’s also military tracks, and apprenticeships, and other things. There’s a whole winding path of possibilities.”
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