Apodaca: Helping kids discover their life's work

Some kids finish high school with no idea what the future might hold. Even though most go on to further their education, many have only vague notions of careers that speak to them.

But for some, given the opportunity, a path that can lead to important and fulfilling work can emerge before they graduate. That is a goal of those who run Newport-Mesa Unified's Career Technical Education program, which is designed to expose students to practical learning in fields as diverse as film and video production, construction technology, and hotel, hospitality and tourism.

I've written about CTE before, but recently I had the opportunity to see first-hand how these efforts can help open new possibilities for students.

Last month I had the pleasure of stopping by Costa Mesa High School's Green Career Fair, which was organized by the school's Environmental and Marine Academy. About 850 students from Mesa and other Newport-Mesa schools visited the fair, where they met with representatives from various companies, nonprofit organizations and local agencies to learn about environmental initiatives, innovations and jobs.

In a new report released last month, the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics found that green jobs grew four times faster than other industries combined from 2010 to 2011, to a total of 3.4 million. Economists widely agree that employment related to the environment will continue to outstrip the broader economy as employers seek ways to operate more efficiently and with fewer resources.

This makes Mesa's focus on environmental studies a very smart idea.

The academy was started six years ago and has received funding through federal and state grants. Enrolled students follow a three-course track starting with an introductory class, followed by environmental research and technology (changing to green urban design next year), and finally a class in environmental field study. Hands-on experience is emphasized; soon the school is hoping to finalize a deal for students to work on the Fairview Park restoration project.

Teacher Cristen Rasmussen, who runs the environmental program with Cheri Daniels, said that results from these types of narrow-focus academies have been positive. She cited research showing academy students have higher graduation rates on average than the general student population.

"The academy really gives the students a buy-in," she said. "They're more connected and motivated."

At the environmental fair, kids learned about solar installations, composting, recycling, sustainability, water quality and other issues. And by speaking to employees who were passionate about their jobs, the students were given a chance to connect the dots from awareness of environmental concerns to the possibility of turning those interests into meaningful work.

Not that a few kids weren't mostly interested in the candy handouts at some tables. But for the most part, the students I observed were thoughtful and inquisitive.

At one display, two boys listened attentively to a presentation on solar panels. One of them pointed to a model of a building with a solar installation and asked, "How do you make that work?"

I asked one of the boys — Mesa senior Morgan Melendez — why he was interested. He said he's enrolled in a CTE culinary institute, but wanted to find out about solar panels because "a lot of people in my neighborhood want to do it."

At the Orange County Sanitation District table, an employee explained the importance of treating and recycling waste water, eliciting giggles when he told students, "You should know what you flush down the toilet."

A couple of Costa Mesa seventh-graders stopped at the Surfrider Foundation's table to sign up to help at a beach clean-up day, taking note of the display of discarded trash pulled from the ocean, including straws, candy wrappers and even used syringes.

Volcom representative Derek Sabori, who runs the popular Costa Mesa-based apparel maker's sustainability initiatives, provided information to students about managing a business in an environmentally friendly manner. Increasingly, he said, companies are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact, and they'll need workers to help with that.

"We've got to do business differently," he said. "We're having to retrain and retool things."

Bolsa Chica Conservancy workers were there to talk to students about the affect of trash on wetlands and to drum up interest in the organization's youth leadership program, a year-long commitment that involves community events and public speaking.

Students enrolled in the environmental academy were on hand to find new recruits for the next school year. Senior Ally Martin said that among the highlights of the program were fields trips to Yosemite and Santa Barbara. She wants to study environmental science in college and pursue a career in the field; she had just landed an interview for an internship.

"These kids will go out into the community and they'll have a different mindset as a result of the program," said Janice Duzey, Mesa's CTE coordinator.

"They're experienced, they're groomed — it's a pathway."

It's a pathway that makes sense today, when high school isn't viewed as merely a place to learn concepts and theories but as a means to prepare kids for the real world. If CTE programs like the Environmental and Marine Academy can strike that careful balance and help students find their way into a dynamic and growing field, that's a result we can all applaud.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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