Why COVID isn’t dampening career explorations for students in 8 rural districts

Homegrown Talent Initiative has substantially broadened the career horizons of students, superintendent says
By: | September 13, 2021
For the past two school years, the East Grand School District in Colorado has been part of the Homegrown Talent Initiative, a program designed to expand career exploration opportunities for students in eight rural communitiesFor the past two school years, the East Grand School District in Colorado has been part of the Homegrown Talent Initiative, a program designed to expand career exploration opportunities for students in eight rural communities

The food truck purchased this summer by the East Grand School District in Colorado will bring together students pursuing a wide range of career programs.

Culinary students, of course, will create the menu and make the food (starting, most likely, with donuts.) Students in the building and automotive trades will maintain the truck while their classmates studying business will develop the business model, Superintendent Frank Reeves says.

For the past two school years, East Grand has been part of the Homegrown Talent Initiative, a philanthropy-backed program designed to expand career exploration opportunities for students in eight rural Colorado communities where educators and businesses have fewer resources to collaborate.

The eight districts in the initiative managed to provide work-based learning experiences for students in 2020-21 despite the pandemic’s disruption of every aspect of daily life.

“The biggest challenge, I’d call it capacity,” Reeves says. “We can’t hire enough people, and there’s a lack of businesses here. The mom-and-pop shops don’t have time and availability to bring a high school student and really train them.”

Funding from the initiative allowed East Grand to hire a director to work with businesses in finding out their needs so employers also get value from career-training programs. For instance, the director has been able to give small business owners guidance in on-boarding employees, Reeves says.

“We need to provide value to the businesses,” Reeves says. “One thing we’ve learned is that once a student starts asking business owners questions, they start to realize things they may have to change or do differently.”

During the pandemic last school year, local businesses still felt comfortable enough to bring almost 60 students in for in-person work experiences. One student turned his internship into a job this summer and will study construction management in college this fall.

Involvement in the Homegrown Talent Initiative inspired the district to build a profile of all the skills its students should possess when they graduate. Those skills include responsibility and being able to work with others.

“We’ve put that out to high school teachers so they can put them into lesson design and start logging them,” Reeves says. “Then we will bring it down to 8th and all the way to kindergarten, so it’s taught across the board.”

No longer ‘so one-dimensional’

The Homegrown Talent Initiative has substantially broadened the career horizons of students in the Holyoke School District in Colorado’s eastern farmlands, Superintendent Kyle Stumpf says.

“Kids are getting kids exposure to things that are not locally in Holyoke,” Stumpf says. “They are getting exposed to jobs and opportunities, just like students in large districts, that they could someday bring back to Holyoke.”

A key to success has been letting student input on the careers they want to explore guide the development of the program. Students have now begun exploring aviation, engineering and health care.

So far, much of the work has been done virtually via platforms such as Zoom. One student did a virtual internship last school year with a Denver neurosurgeon while another worked with an architect.

Working with a community college in the region has allowed students to begin working on industry certifications, which has inspired older family members to do the same, Stumpf says.

“It’s given us the networking and guidance to reach out to former graduates and to make connections with other districts that have connections to job opportunities outside of our community,” he says.

This fall, the district is shifting to a four-day school week, which leaves students free on Fridays for internships, job-shadowing on other career programs. Stumpf also hopes the initiative, which officially ends in 2022, can become self-sustaining through new grants and other funding sources.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished during COVID,” Stumpf says. “We’ve realized even more how much our district and our community rely on each other in knowing what we need from our graduates and what we need to make Holyoke not so one-dimensional.”