More than 20 West Hancock High School sophomores and their families gathered in the high school lunchroom the evening of spring conferences to begin — if they hadn’t already — thinking about their lives after graduation.
The college-and-career-readiness session was one of two Troy Anderson, an Iowa College Access Network student success adviser, led for students ahead of Spring Break. The other, offered to juniors and their families, was about financial aid.
“We want to help our youngsters figure this out because there are a lot of things that’ll be thrown at them next year and their senior year,” said Matt Welp, West Hancock K-12 school counselor, during the college-and-career-readiness session where Anderson reviewed post-secondary requirements, tools and timelines with students.
Attending college, joining the workforce or enlisting in the military can be challenging experiences for high school graduates, but teachers and staff at West Hancock and Forest City school districts are trying to ease the transition while students are still in school.
Both districts, as are all Iowa school districts, are required to develop, and in subsequent years until graduation, review and revise an individual career and academic plan starting with eighth-grade students.
Those plans are then used by students to select their high school class schedules.
Ken Baker, Forest City High School principal, said those plans, as well as class schedules, are reviewed with students, parents and advisers during an annual Career Action Planning, or CAP, conference held in the spring to ensure they’re geared toward the students’ interests.
“We try to encourage students the best we can to investigate their potential career choice,” he said. “At the cost of post-secondary education, we don’t want them to go through two or four years of training and find out their career opportunities are limited or they don’t enjoy it. It’s just too expensive to do that.”
In addition to the individual career and academic plans, juniors at West Hancock are encouraged to work toward a National Career Readiness Certificate, while students at Forest City are offered John Baylor test prep.
West Hancock also offers a communications course, where interviews, resumes, public speaking and other workforce-related skills are taught and practiced; an high school alumni forum ahead of Christmas break; field trips to college campuses and other experiences
“We want to make sure that they are fully educated in the decisions that they’re making, where they’re going to go, where they’re going to end up and what those careers are going to get for them,” Peterson said.
Forest City provides students the opportunity to job shadow through a partnership with Forest City Rotary, or attend college courses at North Iowa Area Community College, commonly known as NIACC, of Waldorf University.
Darwin Lehmann, Forest City superintendent, said students earn about 1,000 credits annually through the two colleges while attending high school.
“We’re trying to make sure our students are prepared for post-secondary,” Baker said. “We certainly don’t want them coming to the end of their senior year and not having a plan.
“We want to give students the opportunity to go into something with their eyes wide open.”
Juniors and seniors from both districts are invited to the Hancock County High School Career Fair on Friday, April 13, at the Garner-Hayfield-Ventura High School gymnasium. The event is offered every other year through the Hancock County Economic Development Authority.
Peterson said although there’s been a big push in recent years for high school graduates to attend a four-year college or university, it isn’t for everyone.
Of the 70 juniors and seniors currently enrolled at West Hancock, he said between 60 and 70 percent will attend college, but only about half will earn a degree.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can get a range of experiences for each kid in different fields versus a one-size-fits-all approach,” Peterson said.
That’s why Peterson, Welp and West Hancock Superintendent Wayne Kronemann have been reaching out to local and area businesses to gauge interest in providing students with hands-on experience, whether it be an internship, part-time job, work-experience credit or apprenticeship, to educate students.
Currently, such programs are offered on a limited basis dependent on funding, like special education.
“We’d like to get to a point where we could send every one of our kids on a work experience ideally in a couple different areas before they graduate,” Peterson said.
Baker agreed, noting it’s hard for manufacturers, like Winnebago and 3M, to hire students until they’re 18.
“Our next step is to get students into apprenticeships,” he said. “There are a lot of small industries around here that are working hard to recruit good employees who are going to be here a long time.”
Baker said “a very high percentage” of the graduating class attends college, while a small percentage go straight into the workforce or military.
“We’re all working hard to prepare our kids for life after high school,” he said.
But as the state workforce needs change, so may the way schools prepare students, Peterson said, noting the current workforce shortage in the trades industry.
And although West Hancock has started to make connections with local and area businesses, it’ll likely be two years before a program is implemented in a way staff envisions, he said.
“We’re going to try to do those things not only because our workforce needs it ... but also because our kids could really thrive by getting these kinds of experiences,” Peterson said.