Waterloo’s career center proves successful on all fronts
The Waterloo Community School District’s Career Center has exploded in growth in its first five years. Consider: The center started with 37 students in its first year; last semester, the center was at capacity at 420 high school students. The center started with two programs; this past year, it had 18, with more to come in the future.
The center has more than reached its original goal of boosting graduation rates. It has gone from 70 percent in 2014 to 85 percent this past year – in spite of the pandemic.
But beyond graduation rates, the center is meeting the needs of students, providing hands-on, real-world projects that lead to jobs and success in college.
And the school district just made it easier for students to receive certifications and college degrees by signing a Cedar Valley Degree Links agreement, also known as 1-1-2, which allows students to complete four-year degrees in three years. That’s where students in manufacturing, graphic technology and construction attend one year at the Career Center, another year at Hawkeye Community College, and two years at University of Northern Iowa and then receive their four-year degrees. Their transcripts transfer flawlessly. The program will launch this fall.
“We’re really excited about this arrangement,” said Amy Miehe, the administrator of the center. “This enables students to graduate from college earlier at far less cost.”
Miehe said the district will eventually expand the number of programs offered through Cedar Valley Degree Links.
The origins of the Career Center started in 2012, when a task force was charged with looking into the district’s low graduation rates. The task force, consisting of a cross section of educators, business people, community members and parents, started focusing on project-based learning as a means of keeping more students in school. After researching schools nationwide, they decided to model their Career Center on a school out of Wilmington, Del.
“The task force looked at the population size, diversity,” Miehe said. “Wilmington was very similar to Waterloo, and their program was a success.”
After a bond issue failed, the superintendent forged on with the plan by remodeling and restructuring a former high school, converting it into both a middle school and the Career Center.
Though starting off small, the center quickly caught the attention of neighboring districts. Through a 28E agreement – which allows students outside the district to come in and take classes – the center added to its roster students from Cedar Falls, Union, Dunkerton, Dike, Janesville, Jesup, Hudson and three private high schools: Don Bosco, Columbus and Waterloo Christian.
With the added students, programs started to expand and now boasts nursing, digital graphics, trades, emergency medical technician and culinary, to name a few.
“The most popular are nursing and digital graphics,” Miehe said. “One area that is booming now is electrical and the trades in general.”
The Career Center is aligned with the statewide initiative Future Ready Iowa, in which its goal is to have 70 percent of Iowans with education and training beyond high school by 2025.
“We are preparing kids by giving them professional skills,” Miehe said. “We have students doing internships, apprenticeships, work-based learning. Everything we envisioned is starting to happen.”
The center is afforded through the 1-cent sales tax as well as community support. In the last year, the center also received a $1 million grant from the Career Academy Incentive Fund.
The key to success is aligning student interest with business needs. One way Waterloo keeps on top of it is through administering surveys regularly as well as lots of one-on-one time with the students.
“Consistently what I hear from students is they are treated like professionals,” Miehe said. “They have a chance to collaborate with other kids from other schools and districts. They see how these various programs mesh. There are always a lot of new faces and new ideas.
“Our staff is really focused so that students understand how the real world works. When they come up with a project, students are part of the process to the end, learning all the required skills to be successful.”
The Career Center educators are not willing to rest on their well-deserved laurels, however.
“We already have a strong alignment with CTE (Career and Technical Training) between middle school and high school,” Miehe said. “But we’re looking at how we can provide career exploration to our elementary students. What are the things we can do to expose them to different careers? How do we make sure we have a good representation of underrepresented populations?”
In addition, teachers go into the middle schools working to whet the academic appetites of the students to become interested in exploring the Career Center.
“For instance, the IT, web and mobile instructor and students will go into the middle schools and show students virtual reality and provide them hands-on experiences,” Miehe said. “We also bring students here to the center.”
At the Career Center, high school students know how to roll up their sleeves and get work done. But sometimes work and fun can be intermixed.
“The kids came up with the concept of having a golf tournament,” Miehe said. “They came up with the specific details. They contacted our business partners as well as other businesses in the community for support, acquiring experiences with communication, a necessary skill in the workplace. The golf tournament gave them a chance to network with the business they contacted and had a partnership with. They reached out for prize options and created fun activities at each hole. The culinary and hospitality students prepared the meal and served.”
In fact, the majority of the center’s programs participated, such as manufacturing students making signs at all the holes and business students learning about event management.
“In the end, the students golfed with business professionals and instructors,” Miehe said. “It was a fun day – and the students were engaged in a learning opportunity that exposes them to skills necessary for the workplace.”
And the winner is….?
What happens when you bring together 104 middle schoolers and turn them loose on a hands-on project at the Waterloo Career Center? A food truck competition, of course.
Breaking into three groups, the students conceived the theme of their trucks, created marketing campaigns and cooked up a storm – all within three days. It culminated in the competition.
The students were participating in the center’s three-day summer camp for middle schoolers.
“The goal of the camp is to expose them to the center and give the students the opportunity to see what we offer and ultimately excite them about future opportunities,” said Administrator Amy Miehe. “It gives them a chance to see how the work they do in school correlates with the work at the Career Center.”
The camp’s projects depend on the availability of staff. This year, business and culinary educators were available, so the food truck concept was a natural extension. Within each group, students broke into subgroups: culinary, marketing and finance. Once they established their themes, the hard work began.
The culinary subgroups got busy developing their fare, while the marketing subgroups developed promotional material to catch the eye and sell the product. Meanwhile, the finance groups focused on the financial bottom line.
Supplies including food were provided by the center thanks to a donation by Veridian. And play money was created so that each participant had $9 to make purchases at the three trucks. The winner was to be determined by which truck raised the most fake money.
On day three, the competition was on. Staff, parents, guardians and other family members descended upon the event. They got to choose which culinary delights were going to best meet their needs. They did, after all, have a selection.
Team Picnic With Us served grilled peanut butter sandwiches with a wide assortment of toppings, from jams to strawberries. Team Let’s Brunch offered waffles and sausage. And Team Carnival Circus served pulled pork sandwiches. Homemade ice cream was available at all trucks.
The competition was touch and go, but Team Carnival Circus eventually pulled ahead, having made the most sales.
“It was a day filled with energy and lots of smiles,” Miehe said. “It was encouraging to see the support of parents and guardians to witness their kids sharing about their learning experience at the final showcase event.”