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School and business collaboration: Where the rubber meets the road 

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  • Pathways & Partnerships
School and business collaboration: Where the rubber meets the road 

Partnership between District 191 and the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce has strengthened pathways for students 

The Pathways model in District 191 has become a beacon for career and college readiness, setting a high standard for programming that allows students to spark, fuel and blaze a path toward self-discovery and success. A unique aspect of the program comes from the community in which it resides, with a variety of strong community partnerships including the Burnsville Business Education Network and the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce. 

teachers visiting local bookstore Minds Eye Comics

The Business Education Network (BEN) aims to connect employers with students, educators and parents to work towards the common goal of strengthening tomorrow’s workforce. While there are many ways for businesses to connect with schools including job fairs and work-based learning, BEN goes further to offer new perspectives on the current career landscape. 

Business Community Strong

In some ways, this story starts 25 years ago with a school district employee and a chamber of commerce staff member working together in another district on school-to-work initiatives. Fast forward a couple of decades where Dr. Kathy Funston is serving as the Director of Strategic Partnerships for District 191 and Jennifer Harmening is the president of the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce. The two longtime friends are still working together to expand what a career-focused education looks like. 

“When I started at the Burnsville Chamber, I knew Kathy was at the school district and we were able to build on our previous work, speak a sort of shorthand, and get the work going quickly,” said Harmening. “The initiative at the time was Burnsville Promise, but we knew we needed a deeper relationship for an active Business Education Network. Once you see the difference that this work can make, it’s impossible not to do it. It’s kind of like magic.”

The Chamber officially launched BEN in 2017 and immediately started exploring ways to provide students with new opportunities. Existing initiatives like the career fair and student job fair were strengthened and expanded, but it was the launch of the Pathways model at Burnsville High School that was the catalyst to take things to the next level. 

“When we launched our Pathways model, it was all about ‘how can we approach things differently and make this relevant and practical so students can see a future beyond a high school diploma?’” said Funston. “This kind of partnership is critical for student, community and business success. The dots were aligning and the puzzle pieces were coming together.“

Core skills are at the core of Pathways approach

While other districts have used more of a program-based approach, the District 191 Pathways model is woven into every grade level as an all-encompassing educational approach.

“Students who struggle often struggle because they don’t see a point,” said Harmening. “When they have choice in the subject matter and can pick a pathway, they become more interested. It’s exciting to me to be able to share what is happening in the classroom with businesses.”

An early initiative was to increase ways for students to learn core skills (also known as soft skills) that are essential for employment. By using a program called “Bring Your A Game to Work,” upwards of 60 students were offered the opportunity to attend an after school class focused on skills like communication, work ethic and punctuality with building principals and business leaders co-teaching lessons. Students who completed the program received a certificate and the mission was to reach students who needed a little extra support or were struggling to find part-time employment.

“We worked to specifically invite some students and to have a tangible program that would meet students where they were at,” said Funston. “We had a student in the first season who sat by herself and was very quiet, but by the third session, she approached Jennifer.” 

“She told me she had applied for some jobs but wasn’t getting them,” remembered Harmening. “We talked a little bit about things like presence, applications, and interviews, and that was really the launchpad for future classes that included mock interviews with business people and practice applications.”

 “I truly believe that the workplace skills class gave that student the courage to approach Jennifer,” added Funston. 

Fueling Involvement at Every Level

As with any program that is built around connecting people, there were some initiatives that became difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some programs were shifted to a virtual environment and found a lot of success including the Parent Forum and Resource Fair that is designed to provide information and resources to parents about current workforce trends and the wide variety of opportunities for their students. Parents can attend sessions about FASFA preparation, comparing different college options, careers in the armed services and a better look at what kind of training is available during high school. 

“There has been a big shift in business education since I started in the 1990s and it used to be more of a cultural phenomenon that the four year degree was the only option presented to students,” said Harmening. “I felt that educators and parents needed to widen their view a bit to help students see what is available.”

Another extremely successful initiative was the Teacher and Counselor Externships that provided teachers and counselors with the opportunity to tour local businesses and build their understanding of the current workforce needs. The tours were held over the course of a week in the summer with companies providing a look at what skills they need in their employees and how the classroom teachers' subject matter directly relates to those different needs.

“As teachers, we know the content, but we don’t always know how that content translates into all the businesses in the workplace,” said Funston. “For many teachers, education is the only work that they know, so being able to take teachers and counselors into businesses and have them see how their subjects are used in the workplace is so important to help answer the question of ‘why do I need to learn this?’”

A local remodeling company took the group of teachers out to a jobsite and introduced them to subcontractors, many of whom were entrepreneurs, to get an in-depth look at the work day. While at Fairview Hospital, teachers got to explore a wide variety of career paths from nursing and administration to surgical photographers. 

“We met with employees from all different job types in the organization from entry-level positions up to vice presidents and executives,” remembered Matt Deutsch, BHS Hospitality and Education teacher. “I can see a clear path for our students to have really great employment and get their education at the same time with some of these programs offered by local employers.”

Blazing Stronger Connections - Future Ready.

group of community stakeholders visiting Burnsville High School

The partnership between BEN and the school district is only going to get stronger. Businesses are benefiting in multiple ways, including by helping develop a stronger workforce for the future. But bigger than that is the desire for community engagement and to give back to the school system. Harmening and Funston are constantly looking for ways to connect their two worlds and create new opportunities for students. Recently, a group of middle school teachers were looking for graphic novels and other materials that had characters that reflected the student population, so they connected the local comic store owner, who was thrilled to be able to help. 

“All of our students need caring adults in their lives and need to be able to see themselves as successful community members, and we have many successful community members who mirror our students,” said Funston. “We find that students have traditionally used college as the time for career exploration, but we want them to do that in high school so that regardless of what they choose, they will have a head start.”

The future of BEN will depend on priorities from the community, but there are plans to infuse the workplace skills certification courses throughout the school year, bringing back the teacher externship experience, and keeping the business community and the school community connected. 

“We need these strong connections between the business community and the schools and there are no real barriers to what we can do together,” Harmening said. 

“To have a chamber and chamber president who is so committed to the success of the district is incredible,” added Funston. “We hope to be able to continue this for years and years to come.” 

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