Connecting kids to careers

Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Education Association, Brainerd, Minnesota

The Otto Bremer Trust supported Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection efforts to provide opportunities for high school students in the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota to become career and college ready through an investment of $220,000 over two years.

Step inside Ann Hutchison’s packed-full classroom at Pillager High School and your eyes don’t know where to land. The concrete-block walls are mostly obscured by photos, inspirational messages, Pillager sports memorabilia (Go Huskies!) and surprising facts about accountants (Did you know the creator of bubble gum was an accountant?).

The few flat surfaces are stacked with boxes labeled for all the activities “Mrs. Hutch” has a hand in — and this longtime business and technology teacher seemingly has a hand in everything. Hutchison’s days are as packed as her classroom. That’s because when she steps inside those brimming white walls, she sees something others might not: the future.

Future college students. Future entrepreneurs. Future citizens of central Minnesota — and the world. Kids with all kinds of potential clad in baggy gray hoodies. Squirrelly teenagers in need of a nudge. And with support from Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection, Hutchison helps them find their path into the world beyond high school.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is get productive citizens out of our high school students. So where are they headed next?”

Bridges helps students answer that question by opening their eyes to local career opportunities. The work begins in classrooms like Hutchison’s, where students not only learn real-world skills such as accounting, business planning and digital photography, but also make real-world connections.

“There are many different things that Bridges does,” Hutchison says, ticking off a list that includes classroom materials and equipment, a career fair, field trips to businesses, internships, and access to local professionals. “They have a website that I can go on and with a click of a button, I can say I need a speaker to talk to my accounting course,” she says by way of example. “It’s pretty seamless.”

Spend a day in Hutchison’s classroom and you begin to see the full impact.

“Ultimately, what we're trying to do is get productive citizens out of our high school students. So where are they headed next?”

As a 3D printer grinds out the results of Hutchison’s first-period technology class, the students in her second hour “Intro to Business” class work through their business plans. This class is part of the Bridges “Business Academy” program, which requires students to complete three business courses with an A or B grade. Some are taking this course for high school credit, some for college credit. All are figuring out how to turn their interests into a viable business.

Two students are forming a realty company. Several are tapping into their passion for sports — a sporting goods store, a medical facility that treats sports injuries and a “high-performance coaching” clinic are all in the works. Others see a local need for Computer Solutions IT, a tattoo parlor, Vetville Animal Clinic, and a small organic grocery store.

As the students work through their plans, local professionals will come in to talk about the various aspects of running a business — from marketing to finance. “The goal when we hit the end of the semester is that each group will have a working business plan they could actually present to a financial institution,” Hutchison says.

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Pillager High School teacher Ann Hutchison explains the impact of Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection on her classroom.

In Hutchison’s fourth-period accounting class, students are using a workbook and other resources provided by a local bank as they practice balancing a checking account. Lots of hands go up as they study their online ledgers and try to figure out how to handle a bad check.

When that class wraps up, her digital photography class boards a bus for a field trip to the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. Such experiences are invaluable — especially for middle-of-the-road students, Hutchison says.

She recalls a former student — a senior — who told her, “I’m not going anywhere. I don’t know what I want to do.” The Business Academy was a game-changer. The student completed one class, then another. She discovered the field of graphic design. She learned about a two-year graphic design program at nearby Central Lakes College. At graduation, she was recognized with a green cord on her cap for completing the academy.

Hutchison could go on with more stories of success, but she doesn’t have time for that. She has dozens more kids to tend to. Their futures are at stake. “Why we do what we do is to help kids succeed in their lives,” she says.

With support from the Otto Bremer Trust, Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection aims to ensure the community's future by helping high school students understand their local career opportunities.