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UIX: Sights set on empowering students, Kent ISD focuses on youth-business connection

Jarrad Grady

How do you make sure students are ready to take on the world? Jarrad Grandy and his team of STEM and career readiness consultants are answering that by connecting youth at Kent ISD with local businesses.
Businesses have needs. Students have talent.
 
It's a matter of supply and demand, and one that Jarrad Grandy and the Kent Intermediate School District are preparing students to meet.
 
Grandy says the relationships between West Michigan businesses and schools have progressed greatly during the nine years he's spent at Kent ISD, but there are still connections to be made and more for both students and educators to learn. And that's where Kent ISD excels, teaching students in a context that fits a career as well as a classroom and helping educators frame their own curricula more effectively.
 
Within Kent ISD, Grandy is director of the Career & College Readiness team. It's what he calls the business-to-education arm of the district. Grandy and his STEM and Career Readiness consultants work on finding out what kids want to be when they grow up and connecting them with employers who can make those dreams come true.
 
"We really try to tie a student's passion into employers' talent pipeline," he says. "Obviously, Grand Rapids has experienced a lot of growth and uptake in the last few years. There are so many opportunities here. It's a great place to live and work and we want to make sure kids are learning in schools, that the learning is done in a relevant way that meets our needs as educators, and in a way that makes sense to employers."
 
Whether those kids leave high school headed for a six-week training program or a PhD, they'll have a better understanding of how their specific talents might define a career. Grandy and company handle this in a few different ways. Whereas the Kent Career Technical Center provides hands-on training for some of the most popular manufacturing positions, the Career Readiness department focuses on awareness and exploration.
 
"You need that before you start doing actual training in a career," Grandy says.

District to Business
 
Career Exploration Coordinators Amy Pierce, Lindsey Tilley, and Krista Harmon guide students through industry tours, job shadowing experiences, internships, and even student competitions with local employers as panelists. Their job requires reaching out to a few dozen local public and private districts and creating programs that work within their own parameters. It's essential work and creates a foundation for the other elements of Grandy's team.

The coordinators service all public, private, parochial and homeschooled students throughout Kent County. While Pierce works in the construction, engineering, manufacturing, and skilled trades sectors, Harmon works with the health sciences sector, and Tilley works with design thinking and information technology.

"My role is to create events to expose students to the various careers that are available in Kent County – students can’t be what they can’t see," Pierce says. "We create a variety of programming that engages the senses of students so they might be able to visualize themselves in a role in the future--or not, which is just as successful so they don’t chase a path that will cause them to waste money on future educational endeavors."

Some Career Readiness programs are open to all students in Kent County, while others are offered through partnerships with different schools and teachers, specific to their curriculum.

"They talk to a whole host of businesses," Grandy says. "They ask if businesses would be interested in working with the kids in different opportunities. Then they go back to the schools with these employers lined up and ask for kids, and there are always kids ready. Through it all, we've been able to have some really great programming."

Businesses like Precision Metal Forming Association, the Right Place, and Talent2025 have shared career pathways with Kent ISD students. The district also works with the people and resources at West Michigan Works,
Grand Valley State University's Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and the Western Regional Area Health Education Center (WM-AHEC) among other organizations.on a regular basis.

District to District
 
Career Readiness and STEM consultants help form curricula based on science, engineering, technology, mathematics, or soft skills alongside teacher training programs. They visit classrooms and workplaces alike to get a feel for the type of training necessary and build a solid plan from there.
 
"They will bring out new technology, 3D printers, unmanned vehicles, artificial intelligence presentations, and work with the teachers to make sure their needs and criteria are met," Grandy says. "They work with educators in the classroom, alongside them, and in collaboration with them to get them to the point where they would lead the discussion themselves."
 
After demonstrating the lesson and working in tandem with educators to familiarize them with the materials, the consultants are able to pass along more than just advice. Bringing students and educators face to face with the people they're going to be working with provides invaluable support. Grandy says the Kent ISD teachers are even shuttled around to popular employers from time to time so they can learn what the companies do and what their employment needs are.
 
"It's a way of promoting some awareness," Grandy says. "Teachers have a tremendous impact. That's nothing new. But typically, most people have a very linear path in education. We're trying to get all kids career ready and believe it's helpful to expose teachers to multiple careers, too. Then, they can pass the knowledge on to the kids."

Business to Student
 
Kent ISD is making the most of its knowledge base by condensing their training sessions into shareable videos. Grandy says his STEM consultants are able to meet with employers for 20 to 30 minutes and distill their program into a 5 to 10 min10-minute that schools can access on YouTube.
 
"Math being what it was for us--here's a formula and 30 problems, and guess what tomorrow is? A formula and another 30--what we want to do is give teachers another option, another tool in their toolbox," he says. "If I'm a math teacher and I'm working on a formula, this is a big help. It's free and open source. You can use it if you work in Kent County or wherever in the world."
 
Kent ISD's Business Problem Library on YouTube essentially brings viewers inside the walls of local business partners, where anyone can see classroom lessons being applied in the workplace. Whether its basic forces and interactions, advanced electronics, coding, or even robotics.
 
"The idea behind it is, as a school, you may not always have the resources to go out and talk to an employer, but this is a way to bring them to you," Grandy says.
 
The Career Readiness team holds its work to high standards and values the time of those they have the opportunity to work with. Grandy understands a fun experience with a shiny package may not provide the most educational substance or use of resources.
 
"Our currency is time and standards. We've really heard this over and over from educators, so we want to offer something that considers that," he says. "If a teacher is going to take time out of their classroom to do this, then it's going to be held to a high enough standard and taught in such a way to make it worth their time and meets the needs of employers."
 
Technology has evolved to allow Kent ISD some opportunities that were not possible even just a few years ago but Grandy credits the dedication of his team and the local business landscape's growing connection to community matters in making their mission possible. Students with STEM education are in high demand these days, and thanks to Grandy and Career Readiness, they're learning how to market their skills to make demands of their own.
 
For more information on Jarrad Grandy of the Kent Intermediate School District, visit http://www.kentisd.org/
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
 
Photography by Steph Harding
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