by Charles Collier, The Denmark News
DENMARK—Denmark High School was busy on Feb. 12 as eighth graders and their parents filled the Cafetorium for orientation and, simultaneously, local employers, military recruiters, colleges, technical schools, and universities populated the gymnasium for a steady flow of high schoolers.
While most students in the building were looking toward the future with excited eyes, the Board of Education approved a pilot program intended to reach students whose gazes are less enthusiastically fixed upon the existential inquiry, “What will I be when I grow up?”
For those with talents and strengths overlooked by standardized testing and the traditional grading structure, schooling inevitably seems irrelevant and uninteresting.
“There’s always a group of kids that we just struggle with. They’re not bad kids, their work just tails off except when they get to do some work with their hands,” District Administrator Tony Klaubauf said in the meeting.
DHS principal Oran Nehls said there are several programs and offerings in the school which promote career-readiness, but that at-risk students do not receive the same vital guidance.
“We are missing that one piece for these students who are struggling right now and we don’t have a place for them. I’m embarrassed, but all I have for them is online classes in the library, and they’re working on their own,” Nehls said, questioning the tactic’s logic. “They didn’t do well in the class to begin with, why do I think they’re going to be successful on their own in a computer class?”
Under Nehls’ concept of a “Career Academy,” proposed last month, those students will take part in extended job shadows with employers who participate. Students in the Academy will work more on projects than assignments to learn core subjects and see the practicality of what they’re learning firsthand in the real-world.
Ann Franz, director of the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance (NEWMA), was at the meeting to voice the organization’s support for the program.
“I think it’s important to show kids relevancy in what they’re learning. Taking that math and English and communications, and prompting that employer to talk about that,” would help students see, “they’re actually going to be using [those skills.] Showing that relevancy is going to make them more apt to do a little better in school.”
NEWMA has formed five task forces throughout the area with business and education leaders meant to build partnerships that expose students to in-demand skills and provide them with motivated interests instead of blanket requirements. Nehls serves on two.
“My son is not a book learner; can’t sit in the front of the computer, read, do a test. He’s not a good test taker, never was. But you put him in a hands-on environment and he’s going to take off,” Board Member Nancy Van Elzen said of the program’s intended demographic. “Those are the underdogs, and those are the ones that I’ve always fought for.”
Last fall, Denmark alumni Jacob Robinson said that the full-time job he held at KI and the two-year degree he was pursuing were influenced by the furniture maker’s high school partnership initiated by Nehls and NEWMA.
“It made class not boring and something I wanted to keep coming back to,” Robinson said looking back.
Nehls believes the Career Academy will paint a broader picture than the KI partnership, as students could experience job sites of multiple employers for extended periods of time. Which employers will be participating in the pilot run this spring are still undetermined, but Franz indicated that the school should not expect trouble finding them.
“I think employers are even more willing to look outside the box with 3% or less unemployment,” Franz said, adding that she believes, “employers know that they need to be a partner with you. I think this is a wonderful opportunity where it’s just the perfect time.”
Franz and the other nine board members of NEWMA committed support, “by connecting Denmark students to manufacturing companies,” and, “also assist in helping the transportation costs,” in a letter to the school.
Brian DeGrave, manager of the service division for DeLeer’s Construction, drew on his own post-secondary experiences to emphasize the Academy’s viability.
“I fit that criteria of somebody who didn’t like school. I’d skip it to go home and work on my parent’s farm,” DeGrave said.
He was fired for poor attendance from the first three jobs he held before starting work at DeLeer’s sweeping floors. Interested with his surroundings, DeGrave would learn new skills and climb the company ladder—from sweeper, to carpenter, to superintendent, to his current management position and earning a seat on the company’s leadership team.
“I have a real passion about it because I found something that I really enjoyed and at the end of the day, I didn’t get pigeon-holed to just be a carpenter my whole life,” DeGrave said.
Avoiding pigeon holes may well be one of the Academy’s tertiary benefits; students in the program could revert and resume paths for two- or four-year schools, and vice verse. Nehls emphasized that Career Academies already in practice nationwide—project-based charter schools teaching work skills in the classroom—will not be the model for Denmark.
“It will be tied to the core standards, but will be project-based learning,” Nehls said. “It’s like having AP classes or college level classes…it’s having another class to address the needs and what we have to do for our students.”
Tom Neumann, Denmark’s incoming varsity football and track head coach, will be the instructor of the Academy this spring, beginning tentatively at the end of this month. Off the football field, Neumann taught a variety of classes to every ethnic and socioeconomic group at Newman-Smith High School in northern Texas.
Neumann was hired last month for the coaching positions and his diversity of teaching experience, especially high praise for his work with at-risk kids, was mentioned by Nehls and Klaubauf as one of his standout factors.
Both administrators said the Career Academy had been in discussion months prior to Coach Haese’s resignation and that the dual-role was a matter of coincidentally good fortune.
“We weren’t trying to piece these two together; it just worked out. If he only taught AP Spanish, we wouldn’t think he was qualified,” Klaubauf said.
Nehls said ten students would take part in the pilot and that he believes, “very strongly that we could get four of them to graduation.”