Connected Lane County – Creating Opportunities

After high school graduation, students are young adults who are supposed to know everything, right? The students have gone through 13 years of school and should be on their way to college or a job on a thoughtfully chosen career path.

Unfortunately for most students, that’s not reality. But Heidi Larwick, director of Connected Lane County, is working toward making that outcome ring true for more students.

“The impetus was to create opportunities so that more of our students were graduating high school with a plan of what they wanted to do next and that they were set up to be successful,” says Larwick.

Initial conversations centered on the things they didn’t know about student success. Out of 16 school districts in Lane County, data shows how many students graduate and how many attend colleges, but it doesn’t show how many students get a job right out of high school or what kinds of jobs they are getting. Locally, 73% of high schoolers graduate, 22% attend Lane Community College, 5% attend the University of Oregon and about 10% attend a different post-secondary school. The state of Oregon graduation rate is slightly higher than that of Lane County.

CLC is the umbrella organization for a number of programs, including Lane STEM, which facilitates STEM programming for students and education for teachers, and Elevate Lane County, which provides career expos/job fairs, industry tours, job shadows and internships for high school students.

The work of CLC, which formed about five years ago, spans the K-12 spectrum with learning and career prep activities throughout all grades. CLC is grant funded to pay for staffing, bus rides for students to and from events, lunch for the students who attend events and the programming. Community leaders first came together in spring 2010 to begin the conversation about supporting students more fully.

“The initial conversations were about the graduation rate not being great and the schools were working on different pieces, but there was not a connected effort,” Larwick explains. “We tried to find holes that could be filled in their plans or things that teachers couldn’t do without more resources, and we wanted to reach as many districts as possible. What we landed on was students needed to be able to connect what they were learning in the classroom and see the relevance to options either at UO or LCC or in industry. We also knew that it needed to be an ongoing thing and not just a one-time thing.”

To achieve that CLC takes students outside of the classroom on company and college tours, and brings people into the classroom for speaking and presentations.

“Teachers have a lot to do and we can help provide those connections that provide relevance for students,” she says. “We started with middle school career exploration. Middle school students are too far away from a career to push them down a path but if we can give them hands-on activities to do related to a sector it might make them aware that there are options on that area.”

CLC’s first middle school career event happened in 2017 at the Lane County Fairgrounds. It was attended by 43 businesses and 2,500 Lane County students. This year, the event is being held at the Bob Keefer Center in Springfield.

CLC came up with a sequence called Experience Oregon to connect middle schoolers with career exploration. When they move into high school, students get tours of two or three businesses on the same day. The sequence is rolled out by sector. The first one was Experience Oregon Tech, while the second will be focused on health care. After the tours, students get an opportunity for job shadowing.

“Instead of a tour with 50 students now one or two are getting to really know the company they are interested in working with,” says Larwick. “The final piece is internships before they graduate to prepare them to go into a field or to rule something out.”

One of the goals of CLC is to provide teachers with resources to bring back to their classroom. Teachers often go from completing their own education into teaching and don’t experience different fields or industries.

“They don’t get the opportunity to actually experience another industry so often they’re trying to get industry-specific content but they have to find time to make those connections which is really hard,” says Larwick. “So we’re placing teachers and educators into paid teaching externships so they can get a sense of what the industry expectations are, so someone teaching math can explain how tech, food or manufacturing uses math or a computer language and what some of the industry standards are.”

CLC also provides “one-stop” organization of all of these resources. Prior to CLC, when teachers wanted to line up a tour of a business or other experiences for their students they were on their own with organizing it, and the businesses might be fielding calls from several schools wanting to set up tours. This way, the industries and the schools have a streamlined process through an intermediary.

The Connected Lane County board derives support from Lane County’s 16 school districts, the UO, LCC, Lane Workforce Partnership, United Way of Lane County, the Early Learning Alliance, Technology Association of Oregon, Lane County government, Lane Education Service District.

Business partners include Partnered Solutions IT, Concentric Sky, RAIN Eugene, Inseego, Sheer ID, CBT Nuggets, IDX Broker, Revolution Design Group, Pipeworks, Access Media, Nulia, Palo Alto, and others.

“RAIN Eugene has been extremely helpful,” says Larwick. “They were one of the first industries to sign up for a tour for Experience Oregon Tech in fall 2017. Joe Maruschak has also participated on a computer science advisory board that we launched around that same time.”

RAIN Eugene also helped support another CLC program, Lane STEM’s Coder in Residence, which provides computer science curriculum for elementary school students and side-by-side professional development for educators and coders. Last summer, RAIN Eugene hosted a teacher externship.

“They’ve been a willing partner in supporting students and teachers,” Larwick says.

As director, Heidi Larwick pulls on her career in policy work and nonprofit support. About three years ago, as her daughter entered kindergarten, she began to pay more attention to the educational offerings in schools. When the director position of CLC became available, it was a good time in her life to make a career switch.

As the program has grown under her direction, Larwick says the response from students, teachers, and industry partners has been fantastic.

“After the tours, the students get back on the bus and they are thrilled about what is here,” she says. “You hear a lot from them that they had no idea this was here or they are going to work there or I had no idea I could do X, Y or Z and I’m going to work really hard so I can do that.”

After the first tour, one student asked about getting an internship at a company. He followed up two weeks later and submitted his application, even though it was summer and the program wouldn’t start until fall. “We ended up placing him with a different company who hired him part-time during the school year,” Larwick says. “He now has this great experience and this great job that can propel him forward. The teachers say similar things, that the companies are really prepared for them and they’re giving them really relevant information. Businesses have been saying that the students are really excited to be there and are well-prepared.”

At first, student participation in the program was a little low due to their hesitancy because it was outside of their comfort zones. But once students saw the experiences that their peers were having at job shadows and internships, Larwick says applications pretty quickly increased.

“We’re growing in a manageable way,” she says. “It’s about students and the student experience and that ultimately sells it to the next group of students.”