Career Connections: The Value of Community in a Pandemic

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By: Rita Davis

In February 2020, there were over 36,000 Career & Technical Education course enrollments in over 80 programs across 15 high schools and 20 middle schools in the School District of Lee County. From Agritechnology to Welding, classrooms were buzzing with face-to-face, hands-on learning. Students were acquiring the necessary skills to become workforce-ready and most were simultaneously achieving industry-standard certifications.

In March 2020, as schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the modus operandi of Career & Technical Education quickly fell under the high-powered lens of a pandemic microscope. As a result, critical time-sensitive questions emerged rapidly: “How will we provide hands-on learning in a virtual environment? How will students acquire career-ready skills? How will we stay connected to and engaged with our teachers and students?”

These questions became our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity for change. We approached a pinched-off world with brand new eyes. Out of the unprecedented, we cultivated a more dedicated commitment to connecting our students directly with a receptive and supportive business community.

CAREER ADVISORY BOARDS (CABS)

Stakeholder input and advisement are critical to the growth and success of Career & Technical Education programs in our high schools. Therefore, the District charged each high school with creating a Career Advisory Board (CAB) to bring a greater depth to this input. The response from the community was tremendous. In October 2020, there were 44 CAB members and as of May 2021, there are 217 members. CABs are comprised of representatives from all stakeholder groups. If you are interested in participating in one or more high school Career Advisory Boards, please contact Brian Granstra, Adult & Career Education Coordinator (BrianRG@LeeSchools.net).  

CAREER ED TALKS

The Florida Department of Education categorizes CTE offerings into 17 Career Clusters. These clusters range from Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources to Transportation, Distribution & Logistics. Within the career clusters are programs and courses with specific learning standards. To help students gain fast and vast access to the careers associated with these clusters, Career Specialist Kelly Thawley coordinated virtual career panels throughout the 2020-2021 school year. Each panel was comprised of professionals from our community who work in the area associated with a specific career cluster.  CTE teachers were able to Zoom their class into any or all of the Career Ed Talks. The discussions between students and local professionals were robust and the ease of virtual technology allowed more students and professionals to participate. These virtual career panels will continue in the 2021-2022 school year.

ENGINEERING EXPERIENCE EVENT

In November 2020, a previously planned in-person event for high school students interested in engineering was reshaped into a hybrid event that exceeded participants’ expectations. Just under 100 students from 7 high schools interacted virtually with 15 local businesses and 3 post-secondary institutions while receiving lunch from Jason’s Deli and donated engineering-related gift bags. Due to its efficiency and impact, this event is also planned to remain virtual during the 2021-2022 school year.

TRAIN TO GAIN

What started as a brainstorming discussion in November 2019 turned into a formal partnership and a rapid grassroots effort to help students enter the construction trades after high school graduation. Train to Gain, a partnership with the City of Fort Myers on behalf of the Southwest Florida Enterprise Center, recently graduated its first cohort of students. Over half of the students gained full-time employment in the local construction industry before completing the program. Train to Gain is another shining example of how the disruption of the pandemic sparked a new program that will continue to grow. This program is also another example of how quickly the business community stepped-in to create workforce connections for our students.

WORKFORCE SIGNING DAY

Bill Daubmann, President of MY Shower Door and a member of SWFL, Inc. approached the District in the fall of 2019 with a unique idea: dedicate an event to celebrate graduating seniors directly entering the workforce. From those early conversations with Mr. Daubmann and Board Member Chris Patricca, Workforce Signing Day was envisioned to occur in-person in May 2020. The pandemic delayed the event in 2020 and it almost threatened to delay it even further in 2021. Not deterred by the challenges of social distancing, Bill Daubmann offered his business’s parking lot to host the inaugural Workforce Signing Day. The event was attended by students, their families, their employer and leadership from the community and the District. Next year’s event will be held on May 12, 2022 and the planning team anticipates an even greater turnout.

JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT INSPIRE EVENT

To increase career exploration in grades 6-8, the District worked in partnership with Junior Achievement (JA) to offer a full day of virtual career exploration. In June 2021, over 3,000 students from 20 middle schools participated in our first JA Inspire Event. Students were able to interact with our local business community members while drawing connections between high school CTE programs and future career options.

B.O.S.S. SUMMER ENTREPRENEURSHIP PROGRAM

A shorter summer does not mean fewer opportunities to enrich learning for Lee County public school students. The Bold Outcomes by Student Solvers (B.O.S.S.) Summer Entrepreneurship Program will afford high school students the opportunity to create a product or service that seeks to solve a local social issue. This year’s social issues include homelessness, food insecurity, affordable housing, and workforce readiness. Students will learn the framework of entrepreneurship while virtually interacting with businesses as they ideate and create their solution. The final day of B.O.S.S. will include a pitch event in which students will present their business idea to participating businesses. The program was intended to include 10 students in its inaugural offering and the enrollment is currently at 44.

WORK-BASED LEARNING EXPERIENCE REPOSITORY

The need to create a central repository of work-based learning experiences that is easily accessible by businesses and high school students has been a driving force in contracting with Transeo. This web-based application is user-friendly and free to use for local businesses interested in offering a paid or unpaid work-based learning experience to high school students in the School District of Lee County. The Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce is officially announcing this tool at its September luncheon. Although currently in a soft-launch, businesses can quickly create their “Organization Contact” at https://bit.ly/transeocreate at any time.

If you would like to help strengthen our Career & Technical Education business and community connections, please contact our Director Rita Davis (RitaED@LeeSchools.net) or our Career Specialists Kelly Thawley (KellyKT@LeeSchools.net) or Brandi Fulgham (BrandiF@LeeSchools.net).

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