Program taps into rural Iowa’s potential: Students, businesses win
EAGLE GROVE – How do you prepare students to succeed in college and careers? Students at the North Central Career Academy say it’s about stepping outside your comfort zone, meeting new people, gaining real-world experience in high-demand fields, and earning college credit. Oh, and it’s not just for the urban kids in population-dense school districts.
Located in Eagle Grove, population 3,428, the North Central Career Academy serves six area school districts within a 30 mile radius— Clarion Goldfield-Dows, Eagle Grove, Fort Dodge (including St. Edmonds Catholic School), Humboldt, and Webster City. Students attending this regional center have access to college-level programming, state-of-the-art equipment, and career pathways in some of the state’s most in-demand fields.
“The goal was never to supplant anything that was already being offered at the high schools,” said Neale Adams, dean of business and industrial technology at Iowa Central Community College. “The superintendents had been talking for years about ways to share resources. They just couldn’t agree on how to do it.”
That all changed when an affordable building in a centralized location became available. The Iowa National Guard donated its former armory building to the city of Eagle Grove which, in turn, sold the facility at a reasonable price to Iowa Central. Workforce Training and Economic Development (WTED) funds designated to support new program innovation, including career academies and career and technical education (CTE) programs, was used to finance the purchase. Funding through a local three-cent levy and the federal Perkins program was used to purchase equipment.
Now in its fifth year, the academy offers students year-long career pathways in business, engineering technology, health sciences, liberal arts, manufacturing technology and education (referred to as the teacher academy). Community and education leaders credit the academy’s success to its strong ties to business and industry, support from Iowa Central Community College, collaboration with its CTE regional planning partnership, and school districts that are committed to working together to provide students with equitable access to high-quality programs.
“Students who attend the academy have a much broader variety of opportunities for earning college credit than is available through their individual high schools,” said Colleen Bartlett, Iowa Central intermediary network and career academy specialist who oversees the academy’s day-to-day operations.
Every class offered at the academy is for college credit, which means students leave the academy with an Iowa Central transcript, having accumulated up to 19 college credits per pathway. In addition, students who successfully complete a pathway receive a $500 scholarship to attend Iowa Central after high school graduation.
Katie Haberman, a senior from Clarion, said that the structured pathways, in addition to the college credit, was a big reason why she chose to attend half days at the academy.
“The teacher academy classes feed so well into the University of Northern Iowa, and the cost savings is a big factor, too,” Katie said. “I don’t want to be in so much debt when I graduate from college.”
Delaney Molitor, a senior from Eagle Grove, didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation until she decided to try the health sciences pathway. She knew right away that nursing was the path for her. She earned her certified nursing assistant (CNA) certification as part of the pathway program, which enabled her to secure a part-time job at Friendship Haven, an assisted living facility in Fort Dodge.
“The academy not only helped me find my passion, but it has prepared me for college, too,” Delaney said. “I can work in the field as a CNA while I go to Iowa Central, which is great for keeping up with all the medical and anatomy terminology.”
Business partnerships are a big part of the academy’s success. Local businesses donate equipment, help ensure programs align with regional workforce needs and provide work-based learning opportunities for students.
“One new piece of equipment used in the engineering strand, a computer numerical control (CNC) mill, was possible through a donation from Silgan Containers, Prestage Foods and the Iowa Central Foundation,” Adams said. “Without the academy, students wouldn’t have access to these capital-intensive programs. Many of the schools just simply couldn’t afford it on their own, but together we can.”
Joel Mendoza, a junior at Eagle Grove, is enrolled in the manufacturing technology pathway. His interest was piqued as a child watching his dad trying to weld a pipe to part of a vehicle. His high school doesn’t offer welding for dual credit, but at the academy he not only earns college credit, he also has his own welding booth and gets in-depth industry experience.
“This is going to look really good on my resume,” Joel said. “I am earning more college credit and getting experiences that aren’t available at my high school.”
The school district administrators and educators are committed to providing these programs to their students. Each district signed a 10-year agreement to fill anywhere from 20 to 35 student slots at the academy. They decided collectively to use Iowa Central’s academic calendar and to provide transportation to and from the academy. Students take academy classes from 8:20 to 11 a.m. so they can take core classes and participate in extracurricular activities at their high schools.
Making good use of the facility, Iowa Central offers adult education classes in the evening: English as a second language (ESL) and integrated manufacturing. The manufacturing class integrates both ESL along with terminology used at the Prestage plant, a hog processing plant that opened last year in Eagle Grove.
This type of collaboration between school districts, postsecondary institutions and business and industry falls in line with state legislation to raise the quality of career and technical education programs, ensuring high school students graduate ready for college, training or careers. It is also integral to the Future Ready Iowa goal, which calls for 70 percent of Iowans to have education or training beyond high school by 2025.
Thanks to the academy, seniors Mariana Gonzales and Chloe Knigge are already contributing to the 70 percent goal. Both took the business and liberal arts pathways during their junior and senior years. Now they are graduating from Iowa Central with their associate degrees before they even graduate from high school. They said this wouldn’t have been possible without access to the academy pathways.
Recently passed legislation will make it easier to fund regional centers, like the North Central Career Academy. HF 456 extends the SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) state penny sales tax for school infrastructure through Jan. 1, 2051. The bill also created a career academy fund to provide competitive grants for school districts to establish career academies, with preference going to new academies where three or more school districts are working collaboratively.
And that is great news because having more centers means more students will have access to in-demand career pathways, more courses for college credit and the opportunity to explore college classes without the cost of tuition.
“College tuition is always rising,” said Chloe, who will be attending the University of Iowa in the fall. “Kids need to take advantage of the opportunities and the interaction with the college instructors. It’s going to make that transition after high school easier.”
Iowa Central Community College currently plans to establish centers in Laurens and Jefferson. The Laurens location, which will open this fall, will focus on providing students with career opportunities within the manufacturing industry, creating a trained workforce for local companies looking to expand or fill current positions. The Jefferson location will offer at least six career tracks, including health care, computer science, agricultural technology, advanced manufacturing, culinary arts and event management, and construction. This location will be part of a new Greene County high school, which is currently under construction.