Liam, a ninth grader, shows up at the Boys & Girls Club after school. It’s his second visit helping at the club, and it doesn’t take long for an assistant director to find a place for him to jump in. Within minutes he’s in a gymnasium, the center of a rope-jumping circle, working with kids, developing his leadership skills, and exploring a possible career. He likes working with children, has volunteered in his church’s nursery school, and thinks he might want to be a teacher. 

In another part of the gym, Brett, a high school junior, is here for the first time. His mother runs a daycare, so he’s been around kids for as long as he can remember. He’s worked at camps and is considering being a high school teacher. Within minutes of arriving at the club, he’s interacting with the kids and playing games with them. 

Both Liam and Brett are enrolled in the Career Academies Program (CAP) at Bemidji High School (BHS) in Bemidji, MN. Along with over 700 students in their school, they are registered in one or more of the 15 career academies that the school offers (see box below). Child care and education are just a few areas where BHS has built partnerships with local businesses, enabling students to explore work in different careers. Other academy students interested in child care have connected with TLC (Tender Loving Care), a local preschool. 

The Beginning 

In 2015, CAP began with a mechatronics program—part of the Minnesota Innovative Initiative (MI2)—and a health careers/certified nursing assistant (CNA) program. In the fall of 2016, BHS extended beyond these programs after a handful of visionary staff and community partners set a goal to launch the first six CAPs in the fall of 2017, hoping to register at least 100 high school students. We were pleasantly surprised when registration hit 238 students in grades 9–12. 

In its simplest terms, CAP at BHS offers off-​campus opportunities for students to work with local businesses and experience various careers firsthand. Each academy offers posts that are scheduled outside of regular school hours, usually once a month after school at our business and industry partners’ sites. On certain days, when students do not take classes in school, students can spend full days exploring on-the-job opportunities. “We’ve had students spend an entire day with an employer or employee from Hill’s Plumbing and Heating learning [about] HVAC, construction, and plumbing,” says CAP Director Brian Stefanich. Similar plans are being made for students to explore full-day opportunities with additional partners in electrical, welding, chiropractic, and wellness fields.

At Lueken’s Village Foods, another local sponsor and partner, students can explore food preparation, business management, and agriculture. At Red Stu Breakfast Bar, a local restaurant, students learn everything about the restaurant business from safety and sanitation to meal preparation and service. 

Beyond Exploration—Students Get Hands-On Experience 

The program also includes individual experiences for students in grades 9–12, which are tailored to the students’ interests and may or may not be paid. For example, the Youth Skills Training (YST) program, funded by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, is available for students ages 16–18 and provides paid internships in five academy areas: manufacturing, agriculture, industrial technology, health care, and automotive technology. Such customized experiences give students the chance to acquire the skills and work ethic that employers want and need.

Although COVID-19 threw additional challenges into the mix, CAP and its business partnerships have continued to expand. The program now offers 22 career pathways, works with over 70 business and industry sponsors, and provides real-world career experiences. This fall, 745 BHS students—about half of the total BHS enrollment—registered for the academies, with 238 students registered in more than one. “We want students to have relevant learning experiences that mesh with their outside world,” says CAP counselor Jenny Fraley. “We support students’ curiosity to explore careers.” 

Working Together With Local Business Partners

All CAP participants attend a work seminar course through the BHS business department to prepare them for the world of work, expectations, soft skills, etc. Fraley says the pathways also recommend “packages” of required and elective courses to prepare students for their career goals. 

While COVID-19 eliminated larger field trips in 2020–21, these trips are slowly returning for 2021–22, and the program has been able to continue most of its activities, says Stefanich, the CAP director. Since 2017, over 100 BHS students have been placed in 70 Bemidji-area businesses as interns and/or regular hires while still in school or after graduating. 

One of the largest partnerships is with Sanford Health’s MedX, which seeks to create a pipeline for future health care workers. Monthly presentations—held outside of the regular school day—provide a variety of informational sessions about health care careers throughout the academic year. Students tour clinical departments, and to whatever extent is possible, participate in hands-on activities. With back-up plans in place for virtual tours and WebEx meetings, regular sessions have continued to be held in person so far this school year. The first session, held in September, focused on respiratory therapy, which was particularly appropriate in the wake of COVID-19. For this session, COVID-safety protocols were observed, students’ temperatures were taken, masks were worn, and groups were small. For students’ convenience, sessions are also recorded and can be viewed later. Presently, 183 students are enrolled in the health careers academy.

For students in the Mechatronics Academy, Bemidji Steel Company has enabled them to gain experience in a wide range of skills working with metals. In fact, the last eight hires for the company have come from BHS’s CAP. 

“Our continued partnership with the Bemidji Career Academies has been extremely important in supporting the growth of our company over the last year,” notes Alex Grasdalen, chief operations officer of Bemidji Steel Company. Recently, the company partnered to provide opportunities for younger students to work on-site through the YST program. “Not only have these experiences been beneficial for the students, but these students are working right alongside our value-added services staff to support our production team,” he says. “It has allowed the team to be more productive and reduce lead times. But what is most rewarding is to hear how the team has helped provide direction to the students for their future career path.”

The program ultimately benefits all involved. “We believe in partnerships with our customers, vendors, community, and employees,” and “this is how we can partner with our next generation to provide career paths and a solid, stable business for our other invested partners,” Grasdalen says. “I appreciate the staff and the support from the Bemidji Career Academies to make this possible.”

CAP students who complete the prescribed courses and real-world experiences—job shadowing, a YST paid internship, and work-based learning—graduate with a CAP medallion to wear at graduation. However, Stefanich says, benefits extend far beyond recognition at a graduation ceremony. Many students also earn nationally recognized certifications in nursing, computers, manufacturing, and mechatronics.

Grasdalen recognizes another benefit. “Employers who work with the Academy program know who they are getting when they hire a student that they’ve already worked with, mentored, and trained,” he says. “They know the worker will be a good fit for their team. It’s a win-win: A win for the academy, for the students, for our community, and for our local business partners.” 

Sue Bruns is the former assistant principal of Bemidji High School in Bemidji, MN. 

Sidebar: Bemidji Career Academies

Bemidji High School has 15 career academies, thanks to partnerships the school has built with local businesses, which enable students to explore work in different careers.

Aerospace TechnologyChild Care & EducationLight, Sound, & Video
AgricultureConstruction TradesMechatronics (Manufacturing)
Art & DesignCulinary ArtsNatural Resources Management
Automotive TechnologyHealth CareersProject Lead the Way Engineering
BusinessLeadershipPublic Service