Regional centers: Big ideas, big outcomes
If you haven’t heard of Monticello, Iowa, you should. It’s the home to one of Kirkwood Community College’s four regional centers and it, along with its three sister locations, is making a huge impact on area high school students and their career paths.
Built in 2009, the Jones County Regional Center was the first of Kirkwood’s centers to open. Its overall mission was to connect school districts with access to college course experiences and quality career and technical education (CTE) in high-demand job fields. Strong partnerships with area school districts looking to fulfill student interests and business industry needs helped provide direction on the center’s development.
“A group of educators came together to collaborate on how to help students, the workforce and the economy,” said Kristy Black, executive dean of K-12 partnerships at Kirkwood Community College. “We knew that we could collectively provide these school districts with access to high tech programs, industry-standard equipment and qualified instructors with experience and credentialing.”
The Jones County Regional Center initiative proved to be an immediate success. Initially, Kirkwood estimated that 200 students were needed to enroll at the center to ensure it could be maintained fiscally; today, they serve over 330 students at that location. Due to these positive results and the rising needs of other school districts and industries, Kirkwood expanded its regional center reach and, since 2015, includes three additional locations in Linn County, Washington County and Johnson County at the University of Iowa campus. Each center is dedicated to providing students with college and training experiences while still in high school.
“Kirkwood Community College approached the development of their regional centers collaboratively with their partners,” said Jen Rathje, education consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “They focused on meeting the needs of students, school districts, communities and employers. And their plan effectively serves students and school districts across their entire region rather than just one location.”
Currently, Kirkwood’s four regional centers provide courses to seven Iowa counties, and they offer 13 different CTE career academy programs as well as six liberal arts tracks. Over 1,200 students from 33 public and nonpublic high schools partake in these opportunities.
“The best part for our students is they are able to explore so many career options,” said Brian Jaeger, superintendent for Monticello Community School District. “They may realize this is a career for them or, equally as important, discover it’s an area that’s not for them. A school district our size can’t provide these types of opportunities on our own.”
Popular courses at Kirkwood’s regional centers include health care, advanced manufacturing and welding, architecture construction engineering and information technology. Each of these career academies have various types of jobs associated with them, and Kirkwood offers students the opportunity to experience the many facets of these fields while using the latest industry technology and practices. As a result, students not only discover what career areas they prefer, but they can also earn college credits and industry-recognized credentials.
“We have a district goal that every student will graduate with college credit on their transcript, and the regional center helps achieve that,” said Davis Eidahl, superintendent for Solon Community School District. “They can start experiencing what college and the coursework feels like while still supported in high school. It’s a good transition to college and the real world, and it helps them build the confidence to succeed.”
Earning college credits prior to graduation is an efficient way for many students to pursue postsecondary education and training. Several students are able to obtain a full year of college credit or even an associate degree while in high school, which can save time and tuition money. Additionally, students earning industry credentials and training certifications can often enter into the workforce and kickstart their careers right after graduation.
“From a parent’s standpoint, this compares to having your kid get a one-year scholarship,” Jaeger said. “If a student has one year of college credit under their belt, that can be a big cost savings.”
Regional centers play an important role in ensuring Iowa’s future workforce is prepared and highly skilled. They align with the Future Ready Iowa goal of having 70 percent of Iowans with education and training beyond high school by 2025, and Kirkwood has provided an excellent model for what can be achieved through them.
“Kirkwood’s regional center outreach and Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) academy program helped fill a desperate need in the construction industry to attract and retain a qualified workforce,” said John Baker, project manager at Merit Construction. “It is a great way to promote and generate enthusiasm among high school-aged kids, and being a part of Kirkwood’s ACE outreach has allowed me to communicate with them before they have their mind made up on a career. I can’t wait to see what the future holds over the next decades as the Kirkwood Regional Center program grows.”
Community colleges looking to expand their own capacity through regional centers are encouraged to start having conversations with their local school districts.
“First and foremost, start having intentional conversations around what the strategic delivery of high-quality CTE programming looks like in your given region,” Rathje said. “A regional planning partnership can help serve as a catalyst for these conversations among school districts, community colleges and industry partners.”
Institutions have the potential opportunity for financial support to develop or expand a regional center. Through the Iowa Department of Education, the state’s Career Academy Incentive Fund (CAIF) awards up to $1 million for projects that expand equitable access to high-quality CTE programs through partnerships between school districts and community colleges. Priority consideration is given to applicants who focus on programming delivered through regional centers. Recent awardees have included regional center projects at Indian Hills Community College, Eastern Iowa Community Colleges and Waterloo Community School District. Community college and school district partnerships can apply for the first round of the 2022 CAIF grant opportunity through Oct. 29.
Kirkwood’s success has shown that regional centers are beneficial to students and their communities and is something to replicate across the state.
“We feel blessed to have them in our neighborhood,” Eidahl said. “Kirkwood saw our desire for this opportunity and helped strengthen our partnership. We appreciate them.”