Superintendent connects students with career paths

A discussion with David Tebo, chief of Hamilton Community Schools, about school-to-career opportunities
By: | Issue: September, 2015
August 26, 2015

Superintendent David Tebo and administrators in Hamilton Community Schools, which is part of the bigger Ottawa Area Intermediate School District in western Michigan, develop partnerships with local employers and community organizations to offer students work experiences meant to foster a school-to-career mindset.

In the IChallengeU program, Hamilton juniors and seniors work with teachers and area businesses to develop solutions to real-life problems found at work.

Connections, which is a comprehensive career exploration system for students in grades 6 through 12, offers increasing involvement with area businesses to help students learn about the connection between their school work and future career goals and opportunities.

Why did you implement the new programs?

I am lucky to be part of an elementary school district with a large vision that started as I began with Hamilton Community Schools. Ottawa Area ISD has had a good career and tech education center for over 40 years with around 1,300 of the ISD’s 8,000 junior and senior students attending each year. However, it was not giving enough welding, plumbing or business-skill experiences earlier in students’ middle or high school education. Sometimes the center was disconnected in its teaching from what businesses actually needed.

In 2010, the “futurePREP’d” initiative was launched to help prepare all of the ISD’s students with both post-secondary credentialing and a career. Part of that included choosing teachersÑmany of whom were general education classroom teachersÑto train in project-based learning, design thinking and the ISD’s Skills4Success desired skill sets.

By collaborating with businesses that have the jobs that the center leads to, we could build more developed paths. We could make sure that those who hire our students will have a kid with intentionÑsince the school and student know about the student’s aptitudes by experimenting before they get to the point of needing a job.

Hamilton Community Schools, Michigan

Superintendent David Tebo
Students: 2,719
Staff and faculty: 281
Schools: 9
Per child expenditure: $9,195
Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 32%
Yearly budget: $25,188,430

We want to not only see growth in achievement on the high-stakes tests but also with our students’ communication and social skills, confidence, reflection, growth, engagement and interest in learning. These “soft skills” are so important to succeeding in work.

What are the details of Hamilton Community’s career initiatives?

IChallengeU, which was started in 2011 in our district as one part of the Connections Academy, is a high school program where educators learn to design personalized learning experiences for their classrooms. Then with a local business or organization, they develop a question and guide students in a two-week summer course through the process of researching and developing a solution to that company’s real-life issue.

Launched in 2014, Hamilton’s full Connections Academy program offers a career exploration system that starts in sixth grade with different options for each grade to help students make the connection between their school work and career goals, and build a personal career plan while experiencing the career opportunities available locally. Skills assessments begin in sixth grade while a video series featuring local employers and career paths is offered in middle-school classrooms at the Hamilton district.

High school students then work with local businesses in an after-school program for one to two semesters to collaborate on real business problems.

As we work now on Connections “2.0,” we have built the program to be more fluid to adapt to just-in-time changes that need to be madeÑsuch as the strengths of the kids, how the partnership is structured with the kids, and what companies are involved and what they are offering. The best part is that we are putting our kids in these companies’ working spaces and places. The kids are coming up with solutions that the employees didn’t think aboutÑtheir ideas and input are going to be put into use by the companies.

The core of what we are doing is project-based learning and soft skills we’ve developed by working with the companies. We look at what our kids are learning and what is relevant to them and businesses.

How have Hamilton students collaborated with local businesses?

Through IChallengeU, students worked with OMT Vehyl, which produces hydraulics for pneumatic chairs and tables. They worked to answer the company’s question about what marketÑbesides the office furniture industryÑit should pursue with its height-adjustable table legs and bases. After the students came in and pitched a set of ideas, the company sent one to R&D with a Hamilton student pulled in as the lead innovator for the group.

The company developed the idea to install pneumatics on tables for the food service industry. Since all prep tables are of a standard height, a chef who is in a wheelchair or one who is much taller or shorter than average would encounter long-term issues working with a regular, non-adjustable table. The idea will also give more food service opportunities to those with disabilities.

With a Herman Miller furniture designer team, students focused on what classroom furniture should look and function like 15 to 20 years from now. Johnson Controls asked students to figure out what industries and markets it should pursue with its lithium ion battery. Other companies asked the Hamilton students to work on the following questions:

How can HaworthÑa global company focused on interior products such as office partitions and furnitureÑtransform its internship program so that it is world-class and attracts and retains young talent?
What can Ottawa County United Way do to more effectively serve food-insecure families in the Ottawa area?
How can the local Holland Hospital get more females from underserved populations in the western Michigan town to get mammograms?

How did you foster a school-to-career mindset for students and teachers?

The biggest benefit from the program was making the relevance connection in the classroom easier by seeing what businesses really need. We are flipping instruction from a textbook model to an experience/project/problem model by training our teachers in project-based learning and creative sequencing, which simultaneously uses flexibility and planning.

By exposing our students to project-based learning and business industries, they could see all levels of a company that they might work in. We can engage our learners in a different way by raising the rigor and depth of the knowledge they have in the industry and workplace. They see why they need to prototype, fail, reflect on failure and make another prototype. They see why they need to know how to speak so they can present an idea or know how algebra is used in the real world of business.

How do you encourage teachers’ career mindset and training to grow?

From the start, we offered acceptance into training programs through application. Teachers must get endorsements and letters of support from principals, and to make a commitment to work over the summer. In the summer, the work with the companies is not taking the place of traditional classroom time for teachers and students.

Kids therefore have less schoolwork pressure as they get these general college credits and experiences. The teachers and students can then go into their regular classrooms during the school year and implement the changes they experimented with during the summer.

Because teachers undergo training as cohorts, they create personal learning networks for support and ideas in the smaller districts within the Ottawa ISD and are continually practicing the model. Out of the 140 teachers in our Hamilton district, we have 20 to 24 teachers who are trained in one or several of the programs.

We are not actually looking to have all our teachers trained in these methods. The goal is to have enough teachers in each of the districts so students can experience this type of learning and work before they even graduate.

This generation is going to change jobs multiple times in their lifetime. The more we walk them through what it means to be a mechanic, a doctor or a developer, they will have a better idea where they are going with their career. But we also want them to experience different forms of learning methods to see what works best for themÑwhether it is through blended learning, traditional classroom work or project-based learning.

Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.