Career Gears @ Graham

An Innovative Career & College Readiness System
Monday, January 30, 2017

A small rural school community in Saint Paris, Ohio, is doing big things to attract and keep community partners interested in its students. With the advent of Career Gears, the Graham Local Schools is undertaking intentional strides to provide students with multiple career pathway programs.


Superintendent Kirk Koennecke is serious about America’s workforce prospects and his new community. “The days of waiting to earn a diploma and then hoping to find a job, enlist, or enroll are over. At Graham we are seeking to intentionally promote students’ interests by meshing them with our community needs in industry. We want to provide personalized counseling in an industry-specific career, the military, or college for every student.”


Graham currently hosts 10 specific career-education programs with its partner, Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, in a high school of just over 600. Many of these programs include job-ready certifications and/or college credit opportunities already.


But Graham has taken it a step further. It’s new Career Gears program has provided a model internship curriculum for credit that allows a selected group of students to complete a workforce readiness course, earn an industry-recognized credential, and complete a 12-week internship before they graduate.


Koennecke also invested in job coaching and counseling, crucial elements to making this process work for schools and their partners. “We have to have dedicated staff members to act as liaisons with our industry and college partners. Counseling students on a weekly basis is part of the game,” he said. Students have been exposed to Naviance, a software planning tool to help students along their individual path to college or career readiness. Students will work with their counselors and staff to monitor goals and completion of necessary tasks toward what he refers to as the “Three E’s: employment, enlistment, or enrollment”. Naviance provides tools to help students explore careers, plan their next steps, send their information out, and store their own digital portfolios.


Paying Attention to High-Need Areas

Career Gears provides programming in a number of identified high-need industries, including education itself. The new teacher preparation program incorporates early college experiences in a partnership with nearby Urbana University.


“There is a national crisis coming in staffing,” Koennecke said. “We need to address this now, not just for Urbana, but for everyone.“


A Nationally recognized workforce readiness course

Students who choose the internship cohort at Graham will take an 18-week elective course that includes six weeks of workforce readiness content, developed by Dr. Sharon Watkins of The Ohio State University and taught in a blended learning environment by area industry reps alongside a licensed teacher.


According to Watkins, “We are trying to provide training in the soft skills industry partners demand, prepping students with communication strategies, and opening their eyes to safety training, certification requirements, and even grunt work expectations, before they visit a job site for their internship.”

Students will focus on an industry experience of their choosing, and earn a credential to prepare them prior to a 12-week internship placement on site daily.


“What we are trying to do is structure lessons that prepare students for the types of labor skills, and responsibilities they need to make a good impression over the course of a semester”, Koennecke said. We have found that 85% of the time, the industry reps take to the prospective employee due to this sustained contact, and subsequently seek to place them by the time they graduate.”


A Culture shift

Working on career and college readiness takes time. Koennecke cites the need for a “growth mindset” on the part of all staff and partners. “We have to show our partners that 17-year-olds are their future,” he said.  No one trusts a 17 year old to work in industry as a rule, so you have to erode the reservations our partners have with a cultural approach to building trust over time, exposing each student to a counterpart, and developing relationships. There will be students who cannot make it through. There will be industry rules to follow. There will be rules to break, too!”


Graham has created as many opportunities within its district for students as it is asking partners to help with outside the schools. “We have a student-run coffee shop called The Daily Grind. Students plan, manage, and evaluate their own business model annually.”


Planning at Graham is intentional, beginning with 4th Grade Career Day. In middle school, all students are exposed to Coding, and they choose courses from 4 Project Lead The Way electives. This shows partners the schools are being responsive to their needs.


Sustained partnerships are the key

Koennecke has traveled a lot of miles in and around Champaign County. “I’ve been doing a road show to pitch these ideas to companies for the past 12 years now. You have to dream big, start small, and scale fast, as one of my mentors taught me. We believe one student placed in one spot can sustain this model. The impact is personal to one student. The effect of the program itself is a much larger network of sustained community partners working to change America,” he said.


Study areas offered at Graham Local include: Teacher Preparation Academy; Sports Management/Exercise Science; Business and Logistics Management; Information Technologies; Aviation; and JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps).