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Hugh Carey, Deseret News
Instructor Ted Roos controls the flight simulator in one of the classrooms at Granite Technical Institute Thursday, May 22, 2014, in Salt Lake City.
We are trying to give them the opportunity to experience business now in a learning environment, a growing environment. They are basically graded on how much growth they’ve had and the effort they have put in. —Jennifer Jackenthal, program director

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah school districts have developed innovative programs aimed at giving students a glimpse into what their lives could be like in the "real world."

Last fall, the Park City School District launched a new program at the Center for Advanced Professional Studies. The program partners with businesses to prepare high school students for professional environments and careers.

Park City High School senior Jaimie Martin and about 70 other students enrolled in the inaugural classes of the program in the district’s career and technical education department. For Martin, 18, the time spent in the traditional classroom setting and the public school education process in general had been especially challenging.

Born in Maryland, she was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 4 as well as Attention Deficit Disorder. Her educational progress was inconsistent for much of her adolescence.

Tack on the fact that she was home-schooled for a decade while her family sailed around “Europe and the Caribbean mostly,” learning in a traditional educational setting was difficult.

“(After) 9/11, my dad decided to move us onto a boat,” she said. They lived on the boat for about 10 years, traveling to country after country and exploring different cultures — experiences she recalls fondly.

But when they returned to the U.S., the family settled in Utah and for the first time she enrolled in a traditional public school. While being home-schooled, her mom was able to make allowances for her learning disabilities.

Because of dyslexia, Martin said she has always struggled with reading, something that made the everyday classroom environment a daily challenge.

“I was reading books like "The Big Red Dog" at (age) 11 — you know, little kid books,” she explained. In time, her reading proficiency improved sufficiently to achieve grade level competence. The already awkward teenage trials and hardships of trying to fit into a new school, combined with her academic difficulties, had a major impact on Martin’s self-esteem.

But one saving grace was that she developed an aptitude for science and math, which sparked an interest in one day becoming an engineer. And as fate would have it, the Park City Center for Advanced Professional Studies came along.

The center's courses are designed to help students choose college majors and careers. Participants work on projects in business, engineering, interactive design, teaching and technology.

“We are trying to give them the opportunity to experience business now in a learning environment, a growing environment,” said program director Jennifer Jackenthal. “They are basically graded on how much growth they’ve had and the effort they have put in.”

Students are graded on collaboration and teamwork, professionalism, communication, creative process and project management, Jackenthal explained. Companies ask student teams to work on “back burner” projects or other non-critical assignments that the firms need to accomplish, but may not have the time or manpower to work on, she said.

“In general, we don’t take on anything 'mission critical' because it has to be a 'win-win' for everybody,” Jackenthal said. The results are great because the company receives something for free, she added, while the students get the chance to work on and complete real-life, real world assignments.

The program connects students with volunteer mentors, all of whom have experience either in academia or industry. The mentors help the participants develop their projects as well as prepare formal presentations the teams make to their requestors.

Torch Elliott, a retired professor of civil engineering at the University of Utah, has mentored several teams thus far. He said the growth he has witnessed over the program’s first two semesters has been “huge.”

“The dress rehearsals we’re having now are much better than the final presentations given last term,” he said. “To get (teens) to be focused on being professional is wonderful. These kids are going to go to (college) and be the leaders.”

Park City-based environmental engineer Chris Cherniak said he became a volunteer mentor to the program to help the students develop communication and collaboration skills, which he said helps them gain the confidence they need to be successful.

“These are kids who are here because they want to be here,“ he said. “There has been a really impressive arc to their learning skills.”

The experience has been profoundly satisfying for students like Martin who said she has gained new perspective on what her educational and career options are for the future.

“I feel valuable here, which is huge for a teenager,” she said. “It’s brought out the adult part of me that I didn’t know I had.”

Martin’s team has worked on a robot that detects explosives and a solar electric power proposal that they will present to the Park City School Board in a few weeks.

She said that prior to entering the program, there was a time that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to college. Now she has been accepted to the University of Maryland where she wants to study mechanical engineering.

“It’s completely altered me as a person,” she said. “It’s brought out my maturity.”

While the program offers a new model that attempts to give students the opportunity to interact with mentors and businesses, it has similarities with programs run by other districts under the Career and Technical Education banner.

In 2005, the Granite School District opened the Granite Technical Institute in an effort to offer students expanded educational options, with classes in agriculture science, aviation, biotechnology, construction, cosmetology and barbering, culinary arts, health science, information technology, along with technology and engineering.

The program serves more than 2,000 students annually and allows them the chance to get hands-on experience in various career fields, said principal Devon Hartley.

“Our goal is to help kids find some kind of purpose, potential or pathway,” he said. “Some kids get here and may not be (high achievers), but because so many of the kids we have here are, our experience is that kids rise to the occasion.”

He said many students who may have struggled in traditional classroom environments flourish in a setting where they can use their minds and creativity in a more hands-on fashion.

“If we can help a kid — by the time he or she graduates — have an idea where they want to go in their lives, then that’s our mission,” Hartley said.

Seniors Mishana LeFevre (Hunter High) and Scott Croft (Skyline High) both said their time at the institute has been the highlight of their high school experience. LeFevre, who recently completed emergency management technician training, said being able to explore so many career alternatives helped her discover her calling.

“Until I started taking medical classes, I was good at things, but never really great at anything,” she said. “When I got into medical classes, everything clicked into place and I found my passion — the reason I get up in the morning. You can do extraordinary things if you put your mind to it.”

LeFevre will attend the University of Utah in the fall and said she wants to become an emergency room physician.

For Croft, who was initially unsure of what he wanted to do career-wise, attending the institute gave him the chance to explore numerous potential career fields. Along the way, he found that one of the things that he developed a passion for was flying.

“I’ve definitely caught the aviation bug,” he said. Croft recently received his Federal Aviation Administration endorsement and said he would eventually like to get his private pilot’s license.

So enthralled was Croft with his aviation training that he volunteered to re-enact Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 solo trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in the institute's flight simulator. The 18-year old spent 27 hours in the cockpit made to recreate Lindbergh’s experience piloting the Spirit of St. Louis.

“It was very challenging,” he said. “I had to keep track of where I was so I didn’t get lost.” Lucky Lindy’s flight actually took 33.5 hours, but the simulator flew a bit faster than the original aircraft, explained avaition instructor Ted Roos.

“It was kind of nerve-racking trying to keep the airplane on the right heading and stay awake when there is nothing to look at but stars and water,” Croft said.

While he enjoyed the experience of traveling the heavens, Croft said that rather than becoming a commercial pilot, he would like to pursue a career in engineering.

Croft and Lefevre credit the staff at the institute for putting “everything they have” into educating the students and giving them confidence to strive for their highest goals and helping them grow as students and people.

“I realized the professionalism of all the students and the caring of staff,” he said. “They want to see us succeed.”

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