Brian Stefanich accepts a $1,000 grant from Wells Fargo. The funds would be applied to student transportation to area businesses for Job Shadowing and Internships, he said.
A couple years ago, Brian Stefanich and several of his colleagues from Bemidji High School attended a meeting at Bemidji State University where they were introduced to the Bridges Career Academy, a consortium led by Central Lakes College and 28 schools in central Minnesota. Bridges is a comprehensive program that has achieved universally high praise for the way it creatively leverages the strengths of some 20-plus schools near Brainerd to prepare students for the job world through real-world experiences.
According to Stefanich, then the high school principal, the Bemidji-based team realized its own school community—in relationship with Bemidji State and Northwest Technical College—could create a similar program using only local resources. Its high school already offered more than 250 courses through 14 departments and had long-standing post-secondary relationships with school-to-work programs, internships, and other opportunities for juniors and seniors to get out in the field.
So, the group of educators created the Bemidji Career Academies using a consortium of interests that included Bemidji High School, local businesses and industries, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, Greater Bemidji, the North Country Vocational Consortium, Northwest Technical College, Bemidji State University, the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, and the George W. Neilson Foundation.
Bemidji Career Academies can be students’ pathway to careers through a set of high school courses, post-secondary courses, and work-related experiences with a business partnership.
“We want to train our students, and then we want to keep them here—because we have jobs,” Stefanich says. “The academies are a pipeline to fill those jobs.” The six new academies that launched this year were the result of direct input from “our business partners, our industry partners, and our contractors. They’re telling us, we need people. We have jobs, and we don’t have qualified people. What can Bemidji High School do for us?”
Stefanich, who grew up in a family of teachers, is a lifetime educator and administrator who has worked mostly in Bemidji. He felt so strongly about the potential of career academies that he left his job as Bemidji’s high school principal this past summer to become the director of Bemidji Career Academies and the principal of Bemidji’s alternative education program.
“It takes time,” he says. “You have to get out and talk to people and find out what their needs are. The nice thing, though, is I already have those connections in our community. I know all our stakeholders. We have great relationships. They know the direction that we’re going, and they are already getting our students.”
This year, about 500 of Bemidji High School’s 1,400 students have enrolled in at least one of the 12 academies.
Each academy recruits students by making its materials relevant to the real world. Slickly designed brochures use highly-graphical and easily navigated descriptions of careers that are out there. They also cite the classes necessary for a career, the prospects of finding a job, and earning potential. For example, the Natural Resources Management Academy might lead to high-demand positions as an environmental engineer or a conservation scientist. Expected wages, according to the brochure, are $32 and $31 per hour, respectively.
Each academy includes a school-to-work connection that might consist of job shadowing, internships, or work-based learning. Students can receive high school credit for these experiences by correlating them with a formal work seminar. Each seminar incorporates universal skills essential to workplace success, such as problem-solving, decision making and critical thinking. Teachers also touch on resume building, interview preparation, and budgeting. The academies emphasize the value of soft skills as well, such as listening, problem-solving, time management, professionalism, and honesty/integrity, according to Stefanich.
Lumberjack High School, Bemidji’s alternative school, was designed for students struggling in a traditional school setting. Classroom size is capped at 20 students. Classtime is limited to 45-minute increments, half the length of classes in a conventional school. “I really wanted to go the alternative ed route and pursue bringing the academies to a new level. I have so many individual success stories of students who I don’t think would have graduated from high school without the academy.”
“Some of these kids are working jobs just to bring money home to buy food, and they’re the ones babysitting their siblings when they get home.” Kids who were failing classes at Lumberjack High School and Bemidji High School were getting straight A’s at Mechatronics, the hands-on learning academy. “It is a different environment.” He adds that the academy atmosphere stresses personal responsibility. “They get to wear their baseball hat, and they don’t have to ask permission to go to the bathroom if they need to go.”
Bemidji Career Academies currently operates on what Stefanich calls a shoestring budget of just $87,000 a year, which he raised in two grants from the George W. Neilson Foundation in Bemidji. He has five more applications in process and expects to write more to reach his goal of more than $2 million in the next couple of years. “I want to have my own team,” he says.
“My job, right now, is to take it to another level and continue to market our academies,” Stefanich says. Despite his efforts, he’s surprised that at every presentation, “a parent or two will pop up and say, ‘My son or daughter hasn’t told me about the academies yet.’ That tells me that I need to do more, I need to get into our weekly homerooms.”
All students have advisors who meet each Wednesday morning for 45 minutes. Part of the curriculum is to talk about registration for next year’s classes. “When we start the (planning) process in January and February, we talk about the Academies. That’s one of those things where the kids hear it. They don’t necessarily bring it home, but when kids are registering for the classes now, they’re focused on their career and a field that they’re interested in.”
Stefanich and his team methodically market the school to its various constituent groups through breakfast presentations. They started with business leaders, then banks and marketing, moving next to contractors and the construction trades in conjunction with the chamber of commerce and Greater Bemidji. “It’s truly a community effort,” he says.
The Academies tap their private sector advisors for insight on how to maximize the value of the school’s offerings. Each academy has an in-school faculty lead teamed with a community partner. These teams outline what courses to require and tweak the way they are taught.
Stefanich points out, for example, that community leaders said using pencils, paper, and T-squares to teach drafting was passé. So, they replaced drafting tables with 32 new computers, all loaded with Computer Assisted Drawing (CAD) applications.
“This is cutting edge for our community right now,” Stefanich says. He’s currently visiting stakeholders to ask where the Academies should extend and expand their curriculum. He is also contemplating adding law enforcement, fire rescue, or culinary arts, and maybe even an agriculture academy for 4H students.