Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Students Blaze Career Paths at Omaha High School

By Caralee J. Adams — June 02, 2016 6 min read
Bryan High School senior Ashley Gomez, far left, shadows the zookeepers in the lemur exhibit at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha. Ashley says the school program spurred her interest in a zoology career.

On some days, students here at Bryan High School are planting potatoes at a nearby farm or tending to chickens in a coop next to the parking lot. At other times, students might be touring Union Pacific Railroad’s headquarters or helping to sort and ship packages at the school’s fully operational book-distribution center.

All the learning going on outside the traditional classroom is part of the Omaha public school system’s attempt to introduce its 1,700 students to a variety of careers, keep them engaged, and prepare them for life after graduation. Many of Bryan’s students—nearly 85 percent of them live in poverty, and nearly 60 percent are Latino—have parents who never finished high school or college.

The hope is that these students will find a passion and develop career-readiness skills that can lead graduates to high-paying jobs that feed the local economy or inspire them to enroll in a two- or four-year college.

“Our students are coming from diverse backgrounds, and having that exposure to extended learning, visiting universities, or participating in conferences, it levels the playing field,” said Principal Robert Aranda.

As part of Bryan’s nationally recognized program, students can choose from 16 career clusters and two pocket academies—one focused on urban agriculture and natural resources and another on transportation, distribution, and logistics—or TDL, for short. Other districts are using Bryan’s urban agriculture program as a model and in 2015, the TDL academy was recognized with an award for excellence by the organization now known as Advance CTE, which represents state career and technical education directors.

In middle school, students take a career exploration course and a career interest survey. Based on the results, a career cluster is assigned to them. They meet annually with their counselor to review individual learning plans and career interests. And students must compete for a spot in the popular urban agriculture and transportation academies.

The school launched the academies four years ago in response to the state’s labor needs, Aranda said. One in 3 jobs in Nebraska is agriculture-related, and, the state’s central location makes it a transportation hub.

Despite the local demand for employees with skills suited to those industries, students aren’t aware of what jobs in those fields can look like, said Mary Miller, a curriculum specialist at Bryan working with several career education programs at Bryan.

“When they think ag, they think cows and plows,” said Miller, who has brought students on tours of agriculture-related businesses, such as Farm Credit Services headquarters in Omaha. “Their jaws drop. … They say, ‘I can actually work here?’ ”

Tony Jesina, a senior vice president at Farm Credit Services and a business-advisory-council member at Bryan, shows students the technology, underwriting, sales, and operation divisions at the 700-employee office. “You have to get out of the walls of the school because then you see people that work there and the environment they work in,” he said.

Big Trucks, Bigger Economies

In the transportation industry, talking to students about the economy that “never sleeps” and showing them the big trucks can generate excitement among students, said Jim Walsh, the recruiting director for Truck Center Cos. in Omaha and a member of the TDL advisory council. It’s important, too, that students understand early to keep a clean driving record (a requirement for a truck driver) and know the relevance of what they are studying to a future career, he added.

At Bryan, students interact with employers and college recruiters at career fairs. Students in TDL, who can earn automotive-services, forklift, and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health) certification, create résumés as sophomores.

Junior Andrea Gonzalez rounds up chickens for a class in the urban agriculture and natural resources academy.

Joshua Hogrefe, a TDL teacher, requires students to introduce themselves to the business representatives and follow up with them afterwards.

“That’s where the real learning occurs,” said Hogrefe, who emphasizes communication, being on time, and professionalism. “Employers tell us they can train for whatever technical aptitude is necessary, but if [students] don’t come to them with good career-readiness and employability skills, it’s not worth the investment.”

Next to Hogrefe’s classroom is a makeshift distribution center for First Book, a nonprofit based in Washington that Bryan has partnered with for three years to give books donated from publishers to low-income families. Last school year, Bryan students processed orders and shipped 500,000 books.

“We have a business to run, inventory to keep,” said Miller, Bryan’s curriculum specialist. “This isn’t a simulation.”

Sophomores Alex Pineda, left, and Chris Bacon, center, use simulators to learn how to operate a forklift and a tractor trailer in a class in the transportation, distribution, and logistics academy at Bryan High School.

In the distribution center, Fernando Ruvalcaba, a junior, said books must be packed in time for the UPS pick-up. “It’s just showing us what happens in the workplace,” said Fernando, who wants to work as a supervisor one day. “It’s hands-on. You remember the process more because you are actually doing it.”

Over in the urban-agriculture academy, students in Channing Reha’s animal-science classroom are learning about chickens firsthand—one is roaming between the desks, and six chicks are in a bin. “She’s a cuddler,” Reha said of the chicken named Audrey, known to sit in the students’ laps. The students care for the birds and will manage their egg production once they are moved to their newly built coop outside the portable classroom.

Connecting College and the Workplace

Bryan also offers individual students the option of learning off-site.

Senior Ashley Gomez spends about half the school day at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, working with various animals including zebra sharks and penguins. Without the Zoo Academy experience, Ashley said she may not have developed a desire to work as a zoologist with endangered elephants. Gomez will be among the first in her family to graduate from high school and attend college. She plans to enroll at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and major in animal science.

Katrina Whitford, another junior, holds a chicken in her lap as she works in an animal science class at Bryan.

Early evaluations of Bryan’s academies show participating students have higher attendance rates, grades, and engagement than the school’s nonacademy students. When the first class of students graduated from the urban-agriculture academy last spring, they earned on average 21 dual-enrollment credits, and TDL students earned 13.5 credits that can be used in college. (The school has a partnership with Metropolitan Community College and some high school teachers have adjunct faculty status to teach the college-level courses at Bryan.)

Teachers say part of what makes the programs work is that the students take courses as a cohort, creating small learning communities. In addition to the specialized courses, the students take core subjects that weave in transportation or agriculture.

For instance, Matt Pearson covers food scarcity in his world history class and farm subsidies in U.S. government with urban-agriculture students. For economics, he’s brought in entrepreneurs, had the students pitch businesses using the popular “Shark Tank” television-show format, and invited speakers who work in local community gardens.

Although the school is diverse, Pearson added, the students’ perceptions about their career opportunities may be limited. “They may think the only two options for them are the packing plant or a job in flooring or roofing. Just because it’s a diverse group of kids does not mean it’s a diverse group of options and future ideas. You have to bring in those people and break the cycle of poverty.”

Coverage of trends in high school innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
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