Imaginary projects can help kids get a better sense of self

Ideas that emerge when teams of 8th graders are challenged to imagine and invent something the world needs are by turns fanciful, practical and everything in between.

But byproducts of the process are more the point. By bouncing their individual ideas around, coming to consensus and following through with a plan or prototype, students  find clues to their own identities.

That’s what happened when our College & Career Knowledge program took about 90 middle school kids from Clairton City, Greensburg Salem, McKeesport Area and Steel Valley school districts to Pitt Greensburg in December.

The kids worked in teams to develop products or services they believe the world needs and afterward, took surveys designed to help them understand what the project taught them about themselves. The exercise helped some see their leadership potential. Others discovered artistic impulses, analytical capabilities, or other characteristics that it’s important to know before choosing a career, or even a college major.

After working with a team that dreamed up a device for turning turn water into food to end world hunger, Jonathan, a middle school student in McKeesport Area School District, said, “I guess I learned that care about something,“ explaining that the project helped him realize people can work together to change things. “I used to just think that whatever happens, happens.”

Working on the same team, his classmate Austin said he realized “I took the lead as soon as we started.” It gave him inkling that he’s a take-charge type who can get teammates enthused and get them collaborating, he said.

Using the Holland Career Codes, which is designed to help people connect personal interests and attributes to careers, the kids each identified the two most dominant characteristics they brought to their projects. For Austin, who aspires to a career in science, the top two were being realistic and investigative, followed closely by being enterprising.

As for other projects, the kids’ let their imaginations roam. Just to name a few, they came up with portable wi-fi devices, shelters for animals affected by natural disasters and temperature-controlled shoes.

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TFIM leaders learn why “sustainability mindset” is becoming a workplace expectation

Advisors and student leaders from our career exploration program, The Future Is Mine (TFIM), came together in December for mid-year debriefings, planning for the annual Student Leadership Conference and a presentation on educational resources offered by the Green Building Alliance.


Teresa DeFlitch, Green Building Alliance

TFIM team leaders also exchanged ideas on everything from fundraising and recruitment to choosing the best projects and essential skills students need to learn to prepare for the workplace.

As part of TFIM, students take on team projects both to explore careers and build career-related skills, with particular emphasis on leadership.

The mid-year meeting for advisors and student leaders often features community partners that offer opportunities for career exploration. This year, Teresa DeFlitch Director of Learning and Innovation, discussed resources the Green Building Alliance offers schools.

In addition, DeFlitch told students that the sustainability movement not only offers promising careers of its own, it also offers pathways in other industries. Increasingly, a background in sustainability is something employers are seeking even in unrelated occupations, she said.

DeFlitch said that as industries of all kinds focus on recycling, conservation and other green practices, they’re looking for employees “with a sustainability mindset,” even for jobs not directly involved.


Clairton City emphasizing career exploration earlier

Like lots of districts, Clairton City had long considered senior projects the key to engaging students in making post-secondary plans. The problem was too many were treating the projects as just another assignment to finish, not an opportunity for exploration.


Clairton City’s Forum team

That’s why the district’s Forum team is working this year on interventions that not only would help kids gain a sense of direction, but begin thinking about it well before senior year.

“Our goal is for 90% of seniors to identify a career path before graduation,” said Guidance Counselor Maureen Shaw.

A centerpiece of the district’s strategy is a career pathway activity beginning ninth grade. As part of it, kids must identify career clusters of interest and examine specific careers within them, including the training needed, the job outlook, salaries and other information.

The senior project “was often a ‘hurry-up-and-get-it done thing’,” said Shaw. “We want students to look at careers earlier and we want the way they do it to be more meaningful. We feel senior year is really too late.”

Along with earlier and deeper explorations, the district is implementing some other supportive measures, including vocational aptitude testing for sophomores and a grade-point contest in the adult-student advisory sessions that Clairton initiated as part of the Consortium’s MAPS (My Action Plan for Success) initiative. Additionally, Clairton is strengthening its 339 Plan, a state mandated framework for ensuring students receive adequate career preparation.



Apprenticeship training centers offer alternative path

Like most kids, students from Clairton High School knew little if anything about the jobs Sprinklerfitters do before visiting Local 542’s  Pittsburgh training center. But after learning about their work, Ivori, a sophomore exploring post-secondary options, was excited—she thought she might like to do it herself. Not only did the prospect of “helping protect people from fires” hold appeal, she also said she liked the idea of a job where “I can work with my hands.”

Ivori was one of more than 90 students who explored opportunities for apprenticeship training in November as part of our College & Career Knowledge program.

During CCK’s latest session, three different crafts hosted visits so that students from four different schools got the chance to learn about apprenticeships in the building trades. Along with Sprinklerfitters Local 542, programs that opened their doors were the Laborers’ District Council of Western Pennsylvania training center in Saxonburg and Sheetmetal Workers Local 12 training center in Harmarville. Participating schools included Clairton City, Pittsburgh Brashear, Albert Gallatin Area and Yough high schools.

Like Ivori, Martay, a junior at Pittsburgh Brashear, said he was interested in learning about training that is “hands on,” adding “I’m not big on sitting in school.” Both he and his classmate, Andre, said they were really happy to find out how many apprenticeship programs the region offers and about the solid incomes journeymen in any of the building trades can expect to earn. Andre said he was hoping he might get to visit the training center for carpenters on an upcoming CCK session.

The region has 17 different apprenticeship training programs. Students visiting them never fail to be surprised to learn that, instead of paying for training, apprentices are paid for their work while they learn their crafts.


Lawrence County CTC marks gains in extracurricular participation and core academic skills


Lawrence County CTC’s Forum team

Lawrence County Career & Technical Center has seen a sharp increase in the number of students taking part in extra-curricular activities this year as well as in the number who are academically eligible. Both improvements owe a nod to an initiative a team of the CTC’s educators undertook as part of their work in The Forum

The Forum is a network the Consortium organizes to help educators develop leadership skills while pursuing projects that support high priority goals in their schools or districts.

One of Lawrence County CTC ‘s overarching goals has been inclusivity. In support of it, the school’s Forum team set out this year to get more students involved in extra-curricular activities and more on solid enough academic footing that they can participate, said Brad Windhorst, a math teacher and Forum team member.

Enlisting student voice was a critical factor in designing a successful initiative, he added. The biggest hurdle to expanding extracurricular participation seemed to be that the activities the CTC offered just didn’t hold wide appeal, Windhorst noted.

Before embarking on an overhaul, the Forum team used a student survey to find out what activities kids actually wanted. It then sought support from teachers to broaden the options for the current school year. The upshot is an extracurricular menu of 48 activities that now encompasses interests as disparate as cooking, classic movies, weightlifting and woodwork.

The Forum team set a goal of 75% participation, which aimed for all students who were academically eligible when the school year began. At the time, the other 25% were required to spend their free periods in study halls getting help to improve skills in one or more core academic courses.

As anticipated, tailoring the extracurricular offerings to address kids’ interests has helped attract eligible students–participation quickly hit the Forum team’s 75% goal.

But it’s also apparently served as an incentive to those whose academic performance was lagging when the school year started. As a result, some 92 percent of students are now both academically eligible to participate in extracurricular activities and also regularly doing so.

“It was amazing how dramatically the number changed,” Windhorst said, quickly adding that the Forum team’s work was just one of several factors driving improvement. Others included a new school Principal and a concerted effort the school is making to reinforce core academic lessons even in unrelated classes.




Peers select four Forum teams for recognition

At The Forum’s November meeting, teams of educators shared progress on planning and implementation of initiatives they’ve undertaken to help achieve high priority goals in their districts.

In breakout groups of two to three schools or districts, participants received feedback and selected four of the initiatives for recognition based on the quality of their work to date. The four schools and districts were: Clairton City School District; Lawrence County Career & Technology Center; Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and Sharon City School District.

We’ll be providing individual snapshots of these projects on Fridays beginning Dec. 2, so watch our website for updates. Meanwhile, here are some photos from the latest Forum session.



Students look to technology to solve business challenges confronting PANTHERx

As a highly specialized pharmacy delivering prescriptions nationwide to people with uncommon, if not rare diseases, PANTHERx handles some of the drug industry’s most expensive and perishable medicines. As a result, the region’s fastest growing company needs to stay in constant communication with patients as well as suppliers and shippers to make sure there’s as little damage and waste as possible.

This month, teams of students from Avonworth and Blackhawk school districts began trying to help PANTHERx find ways of using technology to improve communication with patients and upgrade special refrigeration units the company provides for their homes.

The teams took up the challenge through our Student Powered Solutions program, which creates partnerships between schools and businesses to give students project-based learning opportunities to apply STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math) skills to authentic  problems.

The Avonworth team visited PANTHERx on November 16 to discuss the company’s challenges and examine the equipment they might modify. Blackhawk’s team visited the company Nov. 23 and, like Blackhawk, quizzed PANTHERx Business Operations Vice President Jonathan Ogurchak about the company’s existing technologies and needs the company would like to fill by improving it.

Following are photos from both teams’ visits and their discussions with Mr. Ogurchak. The first six taken with the Blackhawk team and the final six were taken with Avonworth. We’ll keep you posted as the project unfolds, so check back to our website for updates.


Latest College & Career Knowledge session takes place at Robert Morris

Groups of students from Steel Valley and McKeesport Area high schools spent a half-day learning about college expectations and campus life in November when Robert Morris University hosted the latest session of our College & Career Knowledge (CCK) program.

Campus visits give students considering college a chance to ask questions of staff and importantly, students who already are enrolled in college. Often, CCK participants are be the first in their families to pursue post-secondary education, whether college or apprenticeships.

The kids had lots of things they wanted to find out. “I want to know everything,” said Demere, a junior McKeesport. He ticked off questions that ran a gamut from what majors are available and whether RMU has a winning football team, to what the food service is like.

When one of his peers asked about laundry, RMU student Steven Lopez said it just one of the many things freshman have to learn to do themselves. He told them to think of the college experience as more than continued academic training. “A lot of it is about developing life skills,” Lopez said.

In addition to asking questions, students toured campus and heard presentations about the academic, social and emotional support resources available at RMU and many other schools.

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Career Ready continues laying foundation

Districts see Consortium as bridge to community

School districts participating in our Career Ready initiative are looking to the Consortium to serve its intermediary role in their work, connecting them to the business community and higher education and building a network that facilitates opportunities for students and educators.

Educators collaborated with the Consortium in October to continue laying a foundation for Career Ready. Among other things, the nine participating districts inventoried programs they already are offering to help their K-12 students prepare for post-secondary education and careers.

“Our goal for the day was to identify existing programming that has potential to be scaled up among multiple partners across the region and determine where our partners see opportunity gaps,” said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak.

Participants at the latest session held table discussions aimed at sharing career preparation ideas across districts and focusing on unmet needs in specific areas. Among the areas of focus were: building career awareness in elementary school; soft-skill development; professional development needs for educators and forming partnerships with higher education and business.

Representative of goals participants set were those at Allegheny Valley School District, which already has begun outreach to local corporations. The district is enlisting help from those companies to bring perspectives on career and workplace pathways and readiness both to students and educators, said Springdale High School Principal Michelle Walter. As part of Career Ready, her school is looking to do “a true phase three” of its career readiness initiative, involving professional development for educators, among other things. She noted that teachers frequently are a little reluctant about career mentoring with students because they have little exposure to workplaces outside the classroom themselves.

“What we find beneficial is networking and support from the Consortium to stay on track and build out our initiative,” Welter said.

Additionally, districts anticipate tapping programs the Consortium offers—including Student Powered Solutions (SPS), The Future Is Mine (TFIM) and College & Career Ready (CCK) and Power of Peers (POP)—to augment opportunities they offer students for exploring colleges, apprenticeships and career paths and developing the soft skills that can be as critical to success as academic achievement.








Apprenticeship centers open their doors to kids participating in College & Career Knowledge

The Keystone Mountain Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters, United Association of Plumbers Local 27 and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 5 all hosted presentations at their training centers this month for students participating in our latest session of College & Career Knowledge.

College & Career Knowledge organizes learning opportunities for students interested in finding out more about college or looking for alternatives. In both parts of the program, students get to learn from the source. The college sessions afford opportunities to visit campuses and ask questions in breakout groups with faculty, counselors and college students. The apprenticeship sessions take students on site to the training centers, where they explore the facilities and talk with instructors, trainees and experienced tradesmen.

Western Pennsylvania offers an abundance of post-secondary options, with more than 60 colleges and universities, as well as some 17 different trade apprenticeships.

Students visiting the apprenticeship training programs with College & Career Knowledge came from Brownsville Area, Monessen, Pittsburgh Carrick, Pittsburgh Perry, and Steel Valley high schools as well as Lawrence County Career & Technical Center.

The apprenticeships not only are cost-free to their students, they actually pay starting wages and benefits. Becoming a journeyman in one of the crafts usually takes five years, but trainees see their income rise with each year of experience. All of the apprenticeships lead to jobs with incomes well into five figures and some, like the training for electrical workers, also lead to associate’s degrees.

Like others hosting the apprenticeship learning sessions, Tom Nicola who serves as Training Coordinator for the Carpenters’ program told students that job opportunities for tradesmen in western Pennsylvania are expected to be plentiful for the foreseeable future, with a methane cracking plant slated for construction in Beaver County and many other construction projects planned elsewhere across the region. You’re looking at the best work climate I’ve seen in 40 years,” he said.

A sampling of photos of students visiting the three apprenticeship training centers.