By Reggie Ellis
visalia – Evan Padilla is only a sophomore in high school but has already built a web site, designed a videogame and is currently learning to set up networks for wifi Internet hot spots.
Padilla allowed local business leaders to play their videogame and talked about what they have learned during a showcase on Sept. 8 at the Visalia Convention Center. Padilla and a few of his classmates are enrolled in the Computer Science academy at Mt. Whitney High School, which he is using to jump start in the growing industry of information technology services.
“It took me three and a half months to make this game,” Padilla said proudly. “After graduation, I hope to major in computer science at Fresno State.”
Julio Gomez is in his first year of the First Responders Academy at Golden West High School. By the end of his freshman year he will be CPR certified and by the end of his senior year he will be certified as an EMT I, with the ability to step into a job for a local ambulance company.
“I want to be a Tulare County Sheriff’s deputy and patrol the mountains and ranches in the foothills,” he said.
Gomez’ physical education instructor Adam DeCosta coordinates the academy. He said his primary focus is on high intensity interval training to prepare them for the physical rigors of fire and police academies in addition to English and math courses that “tie in” with the academy.
“We emphasize physical education and nutrition, which is already a good thing, and then train these students to join any academy and pass with flying colors,” DeCosta said.
Bill Davis, director of Career Technical Education (CTE) for VUSD, said about 3,000 students are enrolled in one of VUSD’s 20 career pathways and 10 Linked Learning Academies at each of its five high schools. Pathways are courses that expose students to an industry while academies are like majors in high school, where students will not only take one career course each year but also an English and math course tailored for their industry. Students who enter an academy together as a freshman will move through courses together each year until they are seniors.
By the time they graduate, Davis said academy students should have knowledge and skills that employers in key Valley job markets are looking for, and in some cases,have obtained an industry certification.
“Finding industry certification for kids under 18 has been a challenge,” Davis said. “In many cases we are trying to find them college credits and get them ready for to apply to a four-year college.”
The event launched VUSD’s Futures Project, a initiative to recruit more industry partners to be guest speakers, mentors and to provide industry tours, job shadowing and, ultimately, paid and unpaid internships for students enrolled in work-based learning courses. Davis said the goal is not only to prepare students for the workforce, but also to expose them to possible careers. Finding out early what careers you like and don’t like will help students from falling into the college pitfalls of getting stuck in a major that doesn’t suit them or the more costly option of switching majors until they find one they enjoy.
“It’s kind of backwards the way many people do it,” Davis said. “They want to get into a good college and then figure out what they want to do. But if you know what you want to do, then you can pick the college that is best for that field.”
In order to provide that career exposure VUSD started the Visalia Partners in Education (VPIE) in 2002 as a joint venture the Visalia Chamber of Commerce. VPIE initially began as way to close the funding gap in providing meaningful Career Technical Education (CTE). Since that time, VPIE has expanded to include the City of Visalia as well as business and industry leaders. The school district can only take work-based learning so far – up to the point where students need to work in the industry. Today, VPIE is not about money, but building partnerships to ensure that VUSD students have access to as many careers as possible.
Organizations such as the Visalia Economic Development Corporation, Workforce Investment Board and the Tulare County Farm Bureau have been instrumental in the development of the academies.
Mike Washam, assistant director of economic development for the Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA), said it has been difficult for the County to find qualified applicants for open positions. And when agencies hire outside the county, many people use Tulare County as a stepping stone.
“We need to try and grow from within and hire local people,” Washam said. “We need to get to the stage where we are training employees to have longevity here.”
Superintendent Dr. Tod Oto said he came to VUSD as a shop teacher in 1987 to teach students skills they could use in the workplace. Today, he said the district wants to work with public and private sector administrators and managers to find out exactly what skills they need for their entry level positions in fields available locally.
“Visalia has a long history of supporting career education,” he said. “We want students to enter the workforce or college prepared.”
VPIE Chair Dru Quesnoy said her employer, Kaweah Delta Health Care District, has been involved with work-based learning in Visalia for many years. She said there are currently 30 high school students interested in the medical careers “roaming the halls” of the intensive care unit and emergency department to help patients with simple tasks.
“These young adults are the future of your business. You need to invest in them. Join up with us and become involved in the future.”
Private and public entities interested in becoming involved with Visalia Partners In Education should contact VUSD work-based learning coordinator Theresa Polich at 559-798-6120 or [email protected]