Innovation fuels new vision for Career Education in Nebraska schools

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The demands of the workplace have changed dramatically over the past few years, requiring the next generation of Nebraska’s workforce to have a wide range of technical, academic and personal skills in order to be prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow. This significant change in the career landscape is driving exciting changes in Career Education programs in the state's high schools and colleges.

"If we're going to prepare students for the innovation, technology and environment of tomorrow's workplace in Nebraska, we need to continue adapting and innovating to meet the evolving needs of business and industry," said Rich Katt, Director of Career Education for the Nebraska Department of Education. A variety of innovative programs are in place or being developed across Nebraska including:

Houchin Norfolk

Under the supervision of the school nurse, students in the Health Career Academy at Norfolk Public Schools get hands-on experience in patient care.

Dual Credit Courses: Many Nebraska high schools and community colleges are working together to provide high school students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school. This approach helps students gain confidence that they can indeed do college level work—and it helps them get a jump start on their college education, which can lead to more success in college and earlier entry into the workforce.

Career Academies: Career academies are intense, short-term programs that give students a real-world, realistic look at a specific career area. For example, Northeast Community College in Norfolk has developed a career academy in health science that involves 22 high schools. The academy is a three-course sequence, the second and third of which are available for college credit. "Career academies can improve the college-going rate among students and help ease the transition to college because they have already explored the career field and decided it is for them," said Amanda Nipp, director of high school career academies at Northeast Community College. "But even if students decide this career isn't for them, we consider that a success so they aren't well into their college education before they figure that out."

Magnet Schools: Some Nebraska high schools are “magnet” schools with comprehensive programs that focus on specific career areas, offering in effect a "major" in high school that puts students on a fast track for college and a career. Magnet schools typically accept students from all across a school district.

An example is Omaha Northwest, which is creating a mock trial courtroom and a mock United Nations for its magnet curriculum in Law, Government and International Diplomacy—preparing students for careers in public safety, law, international relations and government. "We have also established duel enrolled relationships with UNO and Metro Community College, so that when students graduate from this program, they are a step ahead of other students in those areas," said Shannen Peterson, curriculum specialist. "Students in this program need to maintain a certain GPA and maintain a leadership position in the school—since this program is all about leadership."

Jackson Millard

A student at Millard Horizon employs RFID bar code technology in the school's Transportation, Distribution and Logistics (TDL) program.

At Millard Horizon, students are focused on careers in Distribution and Logistics, using high-tech inventory management and logistics tools that help them apply their core academics of math, science, English and social studies in real world situations. "This is college-level stuff we're teaching," said Ben Brachle, a teacher in the program. "Many students are typically B- or C-level students who become excited about an area and get really fired up. They get engaged in their high school experience—and they’re that much closer to figuring out what they want to do with their lives."

Business/School Partnerships: Many high school students in Nebraska are getting on-the-job experience in the career area of their choice. In Blair, for example, high school business students are working at the Cargill corn processing plant in areas such as engineering, information technology and business. Additionally, the human resources department at Cargill comes to the school to conduct mock job interviews with students. "Students interested in retail are working at local stores—and students interested in business are also working in a number of office environments," said Pat Olson, chair of the career and technical education department at Blair Public Schools.

Entrepreneurship: Studies show that many students would like to run their own business, but they need the training to be successful. Students across Nebraska, from upper elementary to the high school level, are experiencing entrepreneurship through classroom activities, clubs and career student organizations, summer camps and specialized courses and programs.

For example, students in the Entrepreneurship Focus program at Lincoln Public Schools spend five hours a day in the program studying math, English, business, social studies and entrepreneurship. The program, which is headquartered at the Southeast Community College Entrepreneurship Center, is open to all qualified Lincoln area students. The students take science, music, foreign language and other required courses at their "home" high schools.

Jackson Entrepreneur

A student with Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) presents his business idea to a potential "investor" during the annual Entrepreneurship Expo as part of the LPS Entrepreneurship Focus program.

This integration of core academics and career technical education in the Entrepreneurship Focus program helps students understand the relevance of core courses. "In math, our examples involve profit, income, sales, expenses and other business related topics," said Dan Hohensee, the math instructor for the program. "The English focus is on writing a business plan. Social studies looks at the political, economic and social environment that can offer opportunity and challenge to entrepreneurs."

Each year the students participate in a Business Plan Expo, during which they present their business plans and ideas to a review board as part of their grade. Another session of the expo includes parents and community members, who are each given $10,000 in imaginary "investment capital" and decide to invest those dollars based on the students’ presentations and business plans. "This gives the students an opportunity to present their ideas and themselves to people in the business world," Hohensee said. "I think entrepreneurship is going to be key because we have to continue to innovate. We have to continue to think about what can be done right here right now—and help students realize what an advantage they have living in Nebraska in terms of lifestyle and the people you’re around."