Impacting 4 districts: Sharing a work-based learning coordinator
If making an impact in a school district takes a highly talented and motivated educator, making an impact in four districts takes someone truly exceptional. Fortunately, for the four districts within the Cedar Valley West area, they already know this someone. It’s Stacy Ascher.
Since 2015, Ascher has been the work-based learning coordinator for Aplington-Parkersburg, Gladbrook-Reinbeck, Dike-New Hartford and Grundy Center Community School Districts. Through her role, Ascher coordinates experiences such as job shadows, internships, guest speakers and worksite field trips that help students get a taste of different career paths, which has proven to be highly beneficial.
“Anytime students can get out and about and experience things hands-on is a bonus,” said Aaron Thomas, principal at Aplington-Parkersburg High School. “The job shadowing and internships have been huge for some of our kids to know what they may like.”
Traditionally, work-based learning coordinators provide services to only one school district, but these four smaller schools could not support one individually. As a result, these districts came together with Hawkeye Community College to think creatively on how they could work together.
“The position originated before me in 2012,” Ascher said. “Some of the schools were already sharing college classes with Hawkeye, and it grew from there to see how they could provide more work-based learning opportunities for their students.”
By coming together with open minds, the four school districts along with Hawkeye were able to pool resources and innovatively create a shared work-based learning coordinator position. Ascher came on board in 2015 and, since then, opportunities for students have skyrocketed.
“With being focused solely on work-based learning activities, I can really work on building relationships with local businesses and getting students into those opportunities,” Ascher said. “I help introduce careers, such as manufacturing, to students by bringing these businesses on site. And I hold regular office hours at each of the schools to provide career counseling and coordinate job shadowing, internships, mock interviews and career speakers.”
Due to COVID-19, the number of students participating in work-based learning opportunities was not typical during the 2020-21 school year. However, Ascher estimates that over the past two years more than 100 students from the four rural school districts have participated in internships, and job shadow experiences typically range from 250-300 per year.
Recent 2021 graduate Kaylah Warneka recalled her own internship experiences while at Aplington-Parkersburg High School and how Ascher’s role as the shared work-based learning coordinator helped her gain valuable job-related experience.
“Through the program, I was able to work at a local bank,” she said. “I learned a lot about customer service skills, office-based training, professionalism in a work setting and time management between work and school. By partaking in the program, I was able to be better prepared after high school. I definitely felt like I was more ahead of my peers in that regard.”
Warneka is currently starting her freshman year at the University of Northern Iowa, and she feels that having a dedicated work-based learning coordinator along with ample opportunities to explore career paths can help students prepare for their futures.
“Mrs. Ascher is a very good coordinator,” she said. “I think some other students would like this opportunity if they don’t know what to pursue for a career.”
Through her work as the shared work-based learning coordinator, Ascher also serves a dual role as one of the three intermediaries at Cedar Valley Career Connections at Hawkeye Community College. Intermediaries provide similar support by coordinating job shadows, worksite tours and business partnerships for student career exploration experiences. Ascher serves the aforementioned four school districts within Hawkeye’s region while the other two intermediaries serve the remaining 21. Intermediaries and work-based learning coordinators often work together to best coordinate services. And for Ascher and her intermediary partners, they must collaborate often to avoid duplicate contacts to businesses and other resources and to provide high-quality work-based learning experiences for their students.
“Cedar Valley Career Connections has utilized a unique approach,” said Kristy Volesky, education consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “They ensure support for quality intermediary services for schools in their region while also creating an opportunity to support Stacy, a licensed educator, as a work-based learning coordinator that oversees high school internships.”
Ascher’s work within the four school districts is no easy feat. Ideally, schools would have funding to support their own individual work-based learning coordinator or have one split time between only two districts. However, Ascher makes it work and notes that the shared position is definitely an option for smaller schools who need more work-based learning opportunities for their students yet lack resources.
“If districts want to share a coordinator, they need to communicate, have an open mind and develop a cohesive schedule,” she said. “Having a dedicated space for the coordinator at each school is also helpful. With proper supports, the coordinator can be present in all of their assigned districts and help the work-based learning programs grow in each location.”
Work-based learning provides students with excellent opportunities to explore career fields while still in high school, and a work-based learning coordinator can help expand those experiences for students, school districts and businesses. And for the four school districts in the Cedar Valley West area, they understand how valuable their shared work-based learning coordinator is.
“She (Ascher) does a great job,” Thomas said. “It takes a passionate and special person to make the program. For our four schools, you need someone who can put it all together and make it work.”