Helle: Austin stepping up to prepare students

Published 3:17 pm Saturday, December 13, 2014

Austin Aspires is a spin-off of Vision 2020, formed to meet the goals of the Education Leaders vision. The Austin Aspires board and Executive Director Jennifer Lawhead will convene community leaders in 2015 to discuss the full cradle-to-career education system in our community. The goal of the convening is to select a few key outcomes we as a community want for our kids so each child is ready to leave school and join the workforce.

One program is already working to prepare students for the workplace: Step Up Austin. The program was launched in 2013 and modeled after a Minneapolis-based program created by US Bank and Mayor R.T. Ryback.

Step Up recruits, trains and places low-income young people with paying jobs in Austin businesses and non-profits. The program focuses on serving populations with the greatest barriers to employment: low income youth and youth of color. Many students are aspiring to be first generation college students in their families.

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Any junior student at Austin High School or Pacelli Catholic School can apply for the Step Up program and enrollment is going on now. The participants will then receive training from Workforce Development and go through an interview process to be placed with employers.

The Step Up participants are then hired at paid summer positions and work 20-40 hours per week. Last year, 14 students participated and worked at Hormel Foods Corp., Austin Public Schools, Eastwood Bank, United Way of Mower County, Hormel Historic Home and Vision 2020. Job duties ranged from transportation to communications to research to consumer insights to engineering to human resources.

Employers benefit by providing job experience to students that are Austin’s future workforce and by getting extra help for projects from a highly trained employee on a short-term basis. One participant’s manager in 2014 said, “Exceeded expectations. Primarily in the way she was able to take off and complete pretty much anything I gave her. Very effectively works independently without a lot of supervision. Technical proficiency and skills with Excel definitely exceeded expectations.”

Students benefit by earning a paycheck and experiencing the personal growth and responsibility any job provides. In addition, the Step Up participants are able to access careers they are not normally knowledgeable about. They are able to build a network of contacts and experience professions they did not think they were qualified for.

I think the Step Up program is a great example of the type of program that can help a student find their ‘spark’ or passion in life. Many times these ‘spark’ experiences occur outside of the classroom and yet are critical to engagement in education. A student who has found a spark is much more motivated to learn, complete high school and enroll in post-secondary education. The early data that Austin Aspires is gathering points to the importance of giving all our students the chance to find this spark. I think our community will continue to have conversations on this topic.

To learn more about the Step Up program in Austin, please contact Austin High School Principal Katie Baskin at 507-460-1800 ext 1802 or Community Concierge Kristen Olson at 507-437-4562.