A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

From Where I Am Standing: River City high schools re-imagined — and changing the odds for students

By Rick Hulefeld
The Learning Grove

For the first time in America’s history, the best predictor of who will be poor in the future is who is poor today.

Rick Hulefeld is founder and president of special projects of Children, Inc. (now The Learning Grove) and a long-time Covington resident and advocate for children. He was a 2018 recipient of the NKyTribune’s NewsMaker Award. He has been named an inaugural recipient of the Horizon Community Funds 2020 nonprofit Executive award. His column, From Where I Am Standing, is a new, regular feature for the NKyTribune.

Never before were the odds of young people escaping poverty so high. This simple fact is all the more glaring when all around the pockets of generational poverty in Northern Kentucky there is prosperity. There are good jobs going unfilled.

There seems to be funding for postsecondary training for those who are interested. But most low-income students don’t seem to know about the jobs that are available and don’t receive the training these jobs require.

There is a disconnect between their possibilities and their reality.

Many low-income graduates are stuck in low-income jobs and many will have children who will grow up poor. Without real intervention, generational poverty in Northern Kentucky is self-perpetuating.

There is good news.

The Butler Foundation has made it possible for NaviGo to interrupt the cycle of poverty by helping students prize their strengths, learn about careers that need those strengths, and make realistic plans for the day after they graduate. Because of the Foundation’s gift, NaviGo is able to provide free to River City High Schools that are located in Northern Kentucky’s most impoverished pockets, a menu of strategies and a project management team that offers each student a path out of poverty. While each of the strategies taken by itself is an important tool for the students’ journey, taken together they provide a powerful path.

Each strategy is described below. Please note that each school district customizes the following strategies. The school district is the owner and driver of these strategies.

1. In-School Coaching

Each River City High School chooses what year to implement In-School Coaching. Some choose sophomore year, some senior year. Students in the participating/designated grade level will meet in small groups of 15 or less with a NaviGo trained coach. They will meet twice a month to explore their interests, talents, and their career possibilities. They will set goals to improve their academic performance, and by the middle of their senior year will have two or three viable postsecondary options and where to access the financial resources needed to achieve them.

Through the coaching sessions, students will learn how to investigate careers of interest. They will create five criteria for evaluating their career options, developing each option’s pros and cons. Students will review their grades each quarter to determine strengths and areas for improvement. Essential to the success of each student is having an adult who believes in that student’s possibilities. Each coach is a teacher or counselor who has been trained by NaviGo. Each coach receives quarterly on-going training to be that person who sees and supports the strengths of each student even when the student doesn’t.

High School seniors have additional opportunities. While they continue to refine their postsecondary plan with their small group of classmates and coach twice a month, each senior can also choose to spend half a day in dual credit college prep classes, attend a Career Hub, or take advantage of various work experience opportunities in the community. Seniors will complete their resume or “brag sheet” including their interests and strengths, extra-curricular activities, community service, and aptitudes as highlighted by YouScience. If they are thinking about attending a postsecondary institution for a certificate, associates or bachelor’s degree, they will understand how to apply for federal grants and loans, access the Kentucky funds (KEES) they have earned, and locate additional financial support for students interested in specific careers. By the middle of their senior year, each student will be able to identify 2-3 viable options and careers for their post-secondary success that fit their strengths and aptitudes.

2. YouScience, a Powerful New Tool

Every River City High School student has access to a new tool to guide their career choices.

Click image to go to YouScience website

YouScience gives students hope and direction by expanding their awareness of opportunities. It uses fun, engaging brain games to capture real measures of aptitude and then shows students all the high demand careers that look for those aptitudes. YouScience bridges the “exposure gap” by pointing out additional careers in which a student could excel. Students, their coaches and their families have rich new individualized information to guide their career choices. YouScience uses a scientific algorithm to provide students with a highly personalized overview of their best-fit careers, along with detailed information on average salary, regional and national job demand, and education requirements. Over 4300 students in tri-state are now using this and that number is increasing weekly. While new to Kentucky, YouScience is already being used by over 350,000 middle and high school students’ in the United States.

3. Career Hubs & Dual Credit Classes

River City seniors have a new option, Career Hubs. This year students received dual credit in two pathways, Logistics and Computer Information Technology. Students in these Career Hubs are attending Gateway’s Urban Metro Campus in Covington three to five mornings a week. During the first semester, 32 students worked toward two nationally recognized certificates in logistics, along with job skills training. In the second semester, based on strong support from CVG business partnerships, each student will have a paid internship at the airport or with other logistics companies located across the region. Students and employers will have a whole semester to determine if the job placement is a good match with the strong possibility of a full-time job with benefits upon graduation that will immediately move them out of poverty. In addition, 16 other students are enrolled in a year-long Computer Information Technology program at Gateway in Covington. The next step for these students will be to connect with IT companies interested in hiring them.

Gateway Urban Campus

In August 2020, two additional Career Hubs will be added, one in the construction/skilled trades and one in Health careers. The dialog is beginning with Gateway Community and Technical College and the Building Industry Association (BIA) of Northern Kentucky on which certificates will be offered. The role of the BIA is to ensure that the dual credit classes meet their industry standards. St. Elizabeth Healthcare, which has provided significant funding for the Health Career Hub, will determine which entry-level certificates are offered and ensure that the curricula meet their standards. It is expected that both of these new Career Hubs will be of high interest and as many as 150 students will be enrolled next year across all four Career Hubs.

The Butler Foundation, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Gateway Community and Technical College, business partnerships and leadership from the River City School Superintendents have made these Career Hubs possible by providing the funding and flexibility for the NaviGo project management team to build the consensus and work out the myriad details involved in getting these Career Hubs in place. Potential employers, staff from all the high schools along with Gateway Community and Technical College, are needed to make the many decisions around certificates offered, where they are offered, ensuring content standard, etc. These daily and monthly meetings continue to be on-going as there are always more details to work out and improve.

4. New Regional Opportunities: The Connector

Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Cabinet awarded the region a two-year grant to create a College and Career Connector position. The Connector’s job is to find and disseminate to all Northern Kentucky high school students information about work-based learning experiences, apprenticeships, shadowing, and any other hands-on opportunities that might give interested students an opportunity to explore a career in a living wage field. The College and Career Connector is able to bring the information about all of these hands-on opportunities to the coaches in the River City High Schools. This greatly expands the opportunities that these students will have to further explore possible careers.

While the students are growing clearer about their interests and their capabilities through their bi-weekly coaching sessions, their coaches are able to suggest hands-on job experiences that will give them a taste of the career they may be interested in. Expanding students’ awareness of possible high paying careers is very important as too few of the River City students understand the ever-multiplying possibilities that they have.

5. STAR: Students

Each year approximately half of the graduating class of 550 seniors in the River Cities Schools are traditionally accepted into various postsecondary colleges and universities. In the past, at some high schools as many as 70% of these students failed to show up for the first day of class. The reasons are many and varied. Maybe college wasn’t the right choice to begin with. Maybe all the funding is not yet in place. Maybe the student is not receiving any support from their family or friends. Maybe there was one more form that the student was supposed to fill out. Sometimes it is as small as a $50 fee for orientation. Without a little one-on-one support, little obstacles may become overwhelming.

NaviGo recruits, trains, and pays a small stipend to over 60 teachers and counselors, based on the graduating class number outlook, each of whom works with a small group of five designated seniors.

This opportunity is scheduled over a total of 13 months beginning the last semester of senior year and continuing into the summer after graduation and the first semester of postsecondary. These teachers and counselors become the students’ personal support, listening to their concerns, developing trust and addressing issues in a timely way. During the semester this is done face to face either individually or in the small groups of five. In the summer it is done by phone.

Having an adult who has been to college, who knows the individual student’s hopes and challenges, who the student can call when something comes up, can make all the difference. In addition to supporting the students and helping them overcome any obstacles to attending the college, the coaches help these students develop the skills necessary to build a new support network at the institution they are attending. This program can not only help the student access and attend but can positively impact their retention and four-year graduation rate. STARS has been piloted at one of the River City High Schools and has doubled the number of students in class on day one. National statistics are very positive. If a low-income student makes it through the first year of postsecondary, they graduate from college at the same percentage as students in any other demographic.

6. The Life Learning Center: A Transformational Opportunity If Needed

River City High School graduates will leave high school having had the opportunity to explore for one or more years their best options. They will have benefited from a coach who believed in them, and they will have learned from their classmates’ efforts to follow their dreams. They will have looked at their own strengths and aptitudes, have had the opportunity to try out various work experiences, acquired many dual credits, learned how to evaluate various postsecondary choices, located needed funding, etc. They will have a solid plan.

For many students, their plan will work. If they are going to college, they will make better choices about what they want to study because they have a better understanding of their strengths and interests. Fewer changes in their majors mean less money borrowed. If they are entering a career, they will have had the opportunity to choose among multiple possibilities, developed criteria for evaluating the options that fit them best, and an opportunity to experience it.

But what if a student still needs help?

Life Learning Center

The Life Learning Center offers graduating seniors two options: Now or Later. A graduating senior can enroll immediately in Summer Rise, a six-week intensive, deep dive into the students’ strengths and goals and the necessary work skills that all jobs require. At the end of six weeks, the Life Learning Center places the recently graduated students in a full-time job, providing both a job coach and a lifetime membership that entitles the students to return if they should wish to explore other career options later in life.

Many more River City students will benefit from the Life Learning Center later. For some of the 550 graduating seniors from the River City High Schools, the true value of what the Life Learning Center has to offer will come later after they have been out on their own. Even good planning can go awry. College may not be working out, or the chosen career may no longer be a good fit. They may need to take another look at their life goals, strengths and job skills. They already know that this is available for them free at the Life Learning Center.

Thanks to a comprehensive tour of the Life Learning Center every senior took in their senior year, these young people have a “Plan B.” Because these young people spent one or more years learning how to do career planning in school, they will more proactively seek out the Life Learning Center, use its resources sooner and be more successful. The Life Learning Center will be the door to success for many, Now or Later.

In America, every student should have the opportunity to be successful. Every student should have someone who sees their strengths and believes in their possibilities. Every student needs help exploring the ever-increasing college and career opportunities. The River City High Schools are ensuring that every student has a coach who sees their strengths, all students are building the skills necessary to make good choices among possible careers, and have developed a real career plan based on their aptitude and hopes. The River City High Schools will greatly expand students’ awareness of their many real possibilities.

Just as poverty has long term impacts, so does success. According to the most recent United States Census, a student who graduates from high school and earns a certificate or associates degree in a chosen career will earn over one million dollars more over their lifetime than a student who only graduates from high school with no postsecondary degree. It is easy to see the impact of an additional one million dollars on the health, stability, and homeownership and the future impact on that student’s future family’s education. It is also easy to see the impact on the community as the additional one million dollars is spent over and over again in the community, supporting a plethora of local jobs.

What is the financial return on investing in the River City High Schools? What is the financial impact of helping some of the 550 seniors every year be more successful in a carefully researched and personally selected course of studies in a chosen college? Or what is the impact of helping many of the students be employed after high school in entry-level jobs in well-paying careers?

If because of the strategies listed above, only 10% of the 550 graduating students make better choices about their future careers, aligning their dreams and capabilities more closely with the many opportunities that exist in Northern Kentucky, then the financial return is enormous.

Self-perpetuating pockets of poverty will disappear. A new cycle of success and financial independence will impact our region for future generations.

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