A career in advanced manufacturing wasn’t something Kalani Moore used to think about. Then his stepfather, a career CNC machinist, told him to check out the new Advanced Manufacturing Career Interest Academy offered by the Waterloo Community School District.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Moore said, while running a metalworking mill in the academy’s lab at Central Middle School. “I always liked building stuff and working with tools.”
That spark of newfound interest in a hands-on career is exactly what Waterloo Community School District hoped to see when it first began offering Career Interest Academies in fall 2011.
“Our goal is to really engage them and expose them to everything that is out there for careers,” said Jeff Frost, executive director of professional education for Waterloo Schools. “They can discover ‘this is what I want to do’ or ‘this isn’t what I want to do, but I saw something going on over there I want to try.’”
The idea for Career Interest Academies began when district officials and local leaders began visiting schools across the U.S. with similar demographics to Waterloo, but better overall student performance. On a visit to one school in Delaware, the group was impressed by the career center they had created, as well as the support from businesses and the community.
The academies allow high school students to explore different career options before graduation, with a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on learning. Students earn both credit for high school graduation and college credit through Hawkeye Community College.
“The core of our career center is what we’re giving back to the community,” Frost said. “We’re helping create the next generation of workers.”
The first Career Interest Academies began at Waterloo East and Waterloo West high schools, moving into space at Central Middle School called the Waterloo Career Center in fall 2016. Since moving to Central, academy enrollment has increased from 40 students (fall 2016) to 143 students in spring 2017.
Work began in January on an 80,000-square-foot expansion of the Waterloo Career Center. Once completed, the renovated center will have space for more than 15 programs. The project is funded with $16.67 million in revenue bonds, paid for by the state’s one percent sales tax for schools.
“You can see what’s going on now with the space we have and it’s amazing,” Frost said. “The kids are engaged and great things are going on, but we know when the renovation is complete these programs will be even more viable and kids will be more excited to be in this modern, collegiate space.”
Collaboration is a key component of making academies successful, especially through partnership with local businesses and Hawkeye.
For business leaders, the academies provide a chance to bring professional insights into curriculum design, to provide mentoring and internship opportunities, and to showcase the kind of careers available in the Cedar Valley.
“We’re getting so many business partners now that we want to make sure we work with them to utilize them in the best ways possible,” said Dr. Jane Lindaman, superintendent of Waterloo Community School District. “We’ll have a better program if we stay connected with them. We can help them, and they can help us. It’s truly a partnership.”
Hawkeye provides college credit for 90 percent of the courses offered through the academies. Dr. Linda Allen, Hawkeye’s president, sees the academies as a good way to get students thinking about their options early.
“We see career academies as opportunities for students to explore their interests and pursue those interests in a career area,” Dr. Allen said. “This is a partnership to provide more career and technical opportunities for high school students at the entry level.”
Students have the opportunity to earn career certifications in some academies. All pathways provide entry-level knowledge and skills for a career field, whether they want to pursue a two-year or four-year degree, or enter the workforce.
For students like Moore, the ability to explore new opportunities has been one of the greatest benefits of the Career Interest Academies.
“It’s a lot like college,” Moore said, considering his experience in a Career Interest Academy so far. “You have some flexibility and freedom, but you have to pay attention. There are high expectations.”