The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) was host to a roundtable discussion about what makes the state a thriving center for professionals and entrepreneurs and how education ties into that success. Key to the success of an economy is connecting students with career paths and industry professionals in their education.
Dr. Heather Mueller, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, said across Minnesota, communities typically want youth to remain local. Even if a young adult leaves, the hope is that they will return to their hometown, Mueller said.
To achieve that, a community must think about how it can keep students in the local economy through work experience, apprenticeships, internships and job shadows. Partnerships between education and local businesses and industry is essential to a thriving community, Mueller said.
“We think about education from birth to adult – we want to develop education-business partnerships that help people grow careers so they can stay and contribute to their communities, start businesses, and help their families thrive,” Mueller said.
There are several Wahpeton-Breckenridge initiatives that aim to build partnerships between students and community leaders. Entrepreneurship Opportunities, a pilot program that started during the 2020-2021 school year, guided students through creating their own mock business. The Southern Valley Economic Development Authority initiative was funded by area businesses, and over the course of a year, students met with entrepreneurs and industry leaders to learn more about each field and gather wisdom for building their own mock business.
Breckenridge High School also created a community liaison position for the 2021-2022 school year. Breckenridge High School math teacher Stacy Diaz served as the first community liaison, and high school business teacher and DECA advisor Derek Grahn will assume the role Jan. 24.
“The goal is to speak with some of our local leaders to allow them to connect with some of our high school classrooms, students, teachers and so on,” Grahn said.
The goal is to build a database of local professionals that students can draw from when researching or completing projects. For instance, if a student is working on an engineering project, through partnerships formed by the community liaison, the student could seek the expertise of a WCCO or ComDel employee.
“Obviously in small communities, the more connections and networks we can make with kids, there’s a better hope we can have them come back and work within our communities as well,” Grahn said. “One of the driving forces of making sure we have sustainable growth within a small town is making sure that we do have families that are coming back after they’ve graduated.”
Diaz and Grahn will travel to Alexandria, Minnesota, to observe the community liaison program Alexandria Area High School has implemented. Grahn said Breckenridge’s liaison position is modeled after Alexandria’s position, but Breckenridge is also folding in project-based learning.
Breckenridge Public Schools began implementing project-based learning several years ago, which focuses on engaging students through projects and lessons that involve real-world skills and the application of those skills, said Breckenridge High School Principal Craig Peterson. For instance, Breckenridge Elementary School fifth graders – Studio 5 – went on a tour of ComDel Innovation, a contract manufacturing business, prior to the pandemic.
“We’re kind of being a conduit in the middle between the student employee and the business. We always need community input and buy-in with our project-based learning philosophy. We’re trying to shorten the communication between the student employee and our employers,” Peterson said.
Peterson said the school is always interested in connecting students with adults and adults with adults. Breckenridge High School has a successful school-to-work program, run by career and technical education (CTE) instructor Grace Ruckheim. Through the program, seniors have the opportunity to go out in the community to work for two hours.
Peterson echoed Grahn’s sentiments — connecting education to local business and industry is essential to keeping students local.
“We have a lot of thriving businesses in the Twin Towns, and we have employers here,” Peterson said.
There are many 16-18-year-old students looking for a job, Peterson said. If those students make the right connections with a local employer now, it can become a long-term partnership.
“Guess what, when they graduate, they may have a job or a career path and then plus for us, we want to keep our kids in the Twin Towns area,” he said. “Yes, they go off to college or go to a different area, but we want them coming back so our area is thriving.”