High school students empowered through change in classroom culture, real world job training

Photo by Crystal Apilado/Winters Express

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Wolfskill Career Readiness Academy Lead Teacher Matt Moran said there has been a real culture shift at the school. He says that over last year’s transition students have embraced the changes. The new format of moving to a one-room classroom and having students agree to abide by “The 10 Agreements” has empowered students to have more accountability and to be part of something bigger than themselves.

The addition of an internship job board and real-world exposure to career options and professional development training are some of the final pieces in the successful transition from the Wolfskill Continuation High School’s previous credit recovery program to the new Career Readiness Academy high school program starting this fall.

Greg Wade, the other Career Readiness Academy Teacher, and Liz Coman, College and Career Coordinator for the Winters Joint Unified School District, agreed students have taken more pride in the school and are more invested in the program.

“I think it’s not just, ‘What’s in it for me’ for the students here. It’s, ‘We’re all in this together,’ even though we may be working on different aspects of the requirement,” said Coman.

Wade said there is a profound buy-in to the program and students are experiencing a camaraderie similar to that of a sports team or club working together to fulfill a mission.

“When they’re where they all want to win and they all want to succeed, they all work together. That’s the feeling we brought here,” said Wade. “They have responded to the alternative format. It’s met their need and they have responded to it by coming to school much more often.”

According to Moran, some of the parents have mentioned seeing a change in how students look at school when they are at home. While attendance issues are not completely solved, he said it’s a lot better than it was before.

Somewhat similar to Senior Capstone Projects at Winters High School, students in the Career Readiness Academy program are tasked with writing a Career Research Project. Students look into what they like doing, what career options they are interested in and do research on types of jobs that would meet those needs. Students also need to find someone in the community who has that job and interview them to learn what that job is really like.

Moran credits Wade with the format of the Career Research Project. The team believes the design of allowing students to have a voice in what they’re learning and to act upon it gives them more choice while meeting state standards.

“They are being allowed to grow as individuals, as teenagers. It’s like taking a plant and giving it the right nutrients instead of the wrong things,” said Wade. “They have some choice and that makes a big difference in their engagement that they have.”

Coman said the career focus opportunities portion of the program is giving students real-life training in important skills that all individuals may utilize out in the work field.

“From setting up an appointment, preparing questions—take notes and actually meet the person—I think there are so many life skills in that little piece of that assignment,” said Coman.

Coman’s participation in the class is the newest piece of the puzzle of the new Career Readiness Academy program. On Wednesdays she is able to meet with students in both the morning and afternoon sessions to go over career readiness skills and training.

With guidance from the Career Readiness Academy team students not only learn about things they need to succeed, but also go through the motions of practicing and, eventually, execute them in person.

Coman does one-on-one practice from knocking on the door to sitting down to conduct an interview. They work to write small autobiographies about themselves that eventually turn into resumes and cover letters. She models how to professionally ask for a letter of recommendation, which students then practice. The end goal is students will have confidence and know-how in asking for a letter of recommendation from supervisors at an internship or job.

“We are willing to work with students and walk them through the process. Many haven’t done this before. It’s their first time,” said Moran. “We do a lot of ‘real world.’ For the students it’s a little harder to do—it’s mundane. They complain they don’t get enough real world stuff, and we give it to them and they realize they are getting it.”

Coman said many students don’t understand that employable skills are a big part of what people are looking for these days. That includes not only being able to write a resume, but also being someone who will show up, who can communicate and who can collaborate.

“All of those skills that we are talking about and they are doing they see as, ‘This is something that I really need to have.’ Employers are really going to value those characteristics. They need to be taught and practice them,” said Coman.

Part of the experience is listening to a guest speaker working in a profession that doesn’t require a four-year education. Speakers share their experiences of deciding what career path to follow and what they did to get there. Coman also invited representatives from the military and had Teamsters come in to talk about benefits of being in a union.

Willis Jimenez, owner and barber at Winters Barber Co., was one of the presenters this past year. He shared with students his journey to educate them on being a self-taught barber, which involved becoming an apprentice and eventually opening up his own storefront.

Jimenez said he wanted to let students know they don’t have to go to a four-year college to have a successful career. He  also wanted to share the message of the importance of finding a job that revolves around something you are passionate about and would make you want to go to work everyday.

“When you are passionate about your career it doesn’t feel like your working,” said Jimenez.

Wade said it’s important for students to hear what those in the work field say about working with dignity and being able to retire with dignity.

“They (presenters) all said none of us went to college. They (students) realized it’s possible to have a good life.” said Wade.

One of the new program requirements is that students need to work 200 hours at an internship or job. One of the big projects Coman brought to the program was the development of partnerships with Winters businesses to create internship and job opportunities. She created a job board with a variety of job and internship options students could apply for. Coman said she started at the Winters JUSD office with opportunities in IT, maintenance and facilities, assistant teacher, food and clerical positions. She was also able to bring in local internships with Anytime Fitness, Ciarlo Fruit & Nut, Winters Community Library and Putah Creek Council.

Students also visited the Yolo County Employment Center for a tour and had an opportunity to do an interest profile to better understand the types of things that could be careers for them based on the interests they have.

Moran said Coman did all the research on how to bring the program to fruition after he gave her the challenge to find internships and bring in presenters.

“Liz ran with it. As much as the culture (of the program) is a linchpin, this is too. Liz made my ideas real,” said Moran.

Jimenez thinks the career focus portion is a great addition to the program that provides students with other options on a career path that doesn’t require attending a big university, especially if a student cannot afford college tuition.

“As small town business owners we need to support our local youth, and share what kind of careers are available here in their hometown,” Jimenez said.

Another piece of the puzzle is students are able to observe planning discussions in a workplace setting, due to the one-room classroom environment. The Career Readiness Academy team models adults having discussions and interacting in the workplace.

“Tecera Philbrook and I would have adult discussions to show you can disagree with someone without punching them down or calling them names,” said Moran. “Mr.Wade and I do it naturally. They hear us plan.”

“That’s one of the valuable attributes of the one-room school house is they see that,” Coman added. “They see it modeled for them. They take that in.”

Winters JUSD Superintendent Todd Cutler said each of the pieces of the program and the people involved are keys for the Career Readiness Academy’s success.

“You can’t really take away anyone and have success,” said Cutler. “Two teachers, Liz, the counselor—it doesn’t work without those pieces.”

Cutler said moving forward they will continue to refine and move the program in a positive direction. The Career Readiness Academy’s 10 Agreements lays out aspects of the requirements so students not only understand them, but also are aware of what is expected of them.

“What’s amazing to me is the students have responded so well and so successfully to this new system,” said Cutler. “We took a continuation high school just trying to get kids to graduate, to a program that has provided them with an opportunity to help guide them and prepare them for their future.”

Cutler gives credit to Moran for being a model of how educators can take a look at how to better meet the needs of students and successfully meet those needs.

Besides the new program and classroom culture, Moran said for the first time they are working to change the perspective between WHS and Career Readiness Academy. For the first time students at the Career Readiness Academy were able to attend prom without being a WHS student’s guest and participate in band.

“One of the biggest changes is that we’re trying to blur the lines that we’re all high school students whether you’re at Career Readiness Academy or the high school,” Moran said.

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