Educators in small rural communities face significant challenges in preparing their students for the future, especially when it comes to developing work-based learning programs. Speaking during a recent REL Central at Marzano Research webinar Sarah Bird, curriculum, instruction, and assessment director at Boone Central Schools in Nebraska, provided an outline for how she and Boone Central district leaders were able to develop and run a successful work-based learning program that is preparing students, and potentially her community, for future success.
Work-based learning programs provide students with the opportunity to learn valuable vocational skills in workplace settings while in high school, often times working directly with business owners. However, in rural districts such as Boone—where the combined populations for its central towns of Albion and Petersburg have declined from 2,332 people in 1990 to 1,936 as of 2015—developing and maintaining a work-based learning program experiences a number of unique barriers. Some of those barriers include finding a wide range of employers and work experiences that match the needs of students and the community, developing relationships with employers, and acquiring funding.
Bird addressed some of these common challenges and described three steps her district used to surmount them when setting up and implementing their work-based learning program, which they termed the Career Academy.
The first step was to involve local business leaders in the design of the Career Academy. The inclusion of these leaders helped the team developing the Career Academy to better understand the needs of the local and statewide business community and helped spark a coalition of other business and industry leaders to take part in the program and help in providing resources.
“If you get them on board, you know that there’s five to 10 others that will too,” said Bird. “And so, I feel like that’s really where we started, with those key connectors and involving them in the conversations.”
Next, she said the team chose the structure of a National Academy Foundation work-based learning system to model the Career Academy on. That meant putting in place curriculum that guides students from career awareness up through career preparation activities.
Finally, to develop course curriculum and offerings, teachers were sent to learn from business owners about their work and collaboratively develop curriculum for the work-based learning classes. That meant looking at the future employment goals of students and supporting them, while also supporting the needs of the community’s business owners and potential future industry.
What emerged was the Career Academy’s multistage work-based learning program with four vocational paths. That program takes students from a basic understanding of going to work, to shadowing and hands-on experience, to a capstone project in which students become part of the workforce. Included in its vocational paths are health and human services, business and technology, animal science and agronomy, and skilled and technical sciences.
Bird explained that students can earn credits through numerous employment opportunities. Those opportunities include a greenhouse, movie theater, and feedlot, among a host of other professional experiences students can choose from. Through those jobs, they are able to learn to conduct agriculture experimentation, run a successful business, and even conduct research on livestock needs.
While the Career Academy has required significant resources, it has also proven widely successful. And as students leave the program more prepared for the future, as a former Boone Central student who returned to her hometown nearly two decades after leaving, she hopes that future includes the continued economic development of the Boone Central towns.