The following was originally published by the Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

J.W. Leary Junior High School is among a select group of 26 schools from across the U.S. and two in Ireland that have been recognized by CFES Brilliant Pathways as Schools of Distinction for their exemplary efforts in helping students become college- and career-ready.

CFES (College/Career For Every Student) Brilliant Pathways is a nonprofit organization helping low-income K-12 students from rural and urban communities become college- and career-ready.

Teachers Beth A. Reyes and Benjamin Reed are the mentors for the program. This is year two of a three-year grant.

“This is a grant through an organization called Brilliant Pathways,” Mr. Reed said. “They go after schools in underserved communities. They come in and they give the grant for three years as a trial basis. We have the coordinator from Vermont who works directly with us. She comes in and she coordinates activities and works with us as staff and students to kind of piece together the program, dependent on what we want to do as a building.”

“CFES is a grant that our building principal got for us last year,” Mrs. Reyes said. “Mr. Reed and I just jumped on it and we really believe in it. We really think that it’s important that our students at this age are thinking about their future and what does that future look like. We wanted them to just be thinking about that and will it be a career or will they be going to college or will they be going to trade school. Take what they’re learning in class now and why they need to know it.”

The teachers undergo career readiness mentor training as part of the program.

“That kind of certifies us to work as mentors for the students and kind of guide them in selecting a college or career,” Mr. Reed said. “Students also go through that same training and serve as mentors to their peers, and it also gives them a certificate from the University of Vermont as a credential.”

He said the majority of seventh grade students went through the program last year. They asked for volunteers this year.

“This year we kind of restructured it a little differently to focus more in-depth on certain topics,” he said. “We have a smaller group who will actually serve as student mentors, and we have about 30 this year. They’re all eighth graders. These are students who went through the program last year.”

Hands-on projects are the keys to the program.

“A lot of what we did is we took the skills they were learning in class and Mr. Reed would find creative tech projects and things that were using all those skills. So what’s important to this program is that we answer the why when the kids ask why they need to know this. Generations have asked that question,” Mrs. Reyes said.

“We do different team-building activities, but we also focus on college- and career-readiness,” Mr. Reed added. “We researched different colleges and different career fields. These students also had the ability to pair with a mentor out in the field of the job that they’re after or the college they’re after to kind of develop a pathway to get there.”

The projects focus on six essential skills that employers look for in potential candidates β€” teamwork, communication, networking, agility, leadership and perseverance

“All of those skills, we try to incorporate into the lessons,” Mr. Reed said.

Last year, the students took part in a STEM Olympics, with three projects to choose from.

“They could choose to work either as a small team or individual. Last year when we did the STEM Olympics it’s when we saw all that work come to light β€” the team-building, the communication, the conversations that were being had between the students,” Mr. Reed said.

“Part of what we really like to do is create a problem for the kids, think of a problem that is either here in the building or that they experienced in their world, and then ask for solutions like how they work together as a team,” Mrs. Reyes said.

Principal Kendra Quinlan said the students also take part in both virtual and in-person college tours. She said that exposes them to college and lets them know that college can be for everyone.

They also opened up a school store and created products to sell.

“They had to figure out what to do β€” how do we do it, how do we market it, how do we manage it?” she said.

“The goal is to expose them to real-world career scenarios and problem-solving,” Mr. Reed said. “What better way than to bring the careers here?”

One student who took on an individual challenge was Jeric Wolstenholme, who hopes to attend Clarkson University to study engineering. Art teacher Nicole Ashley, who also runs the school’s “Green Team,” has plants that require watering. She wanted certain sections of the plants to have a self-watering capability so she would not have to come into school on the weekend, and Mr. Wolstenholme devised that system.

“We’re very, very proud of that project. That’s exactly the sort of things we’re looking at. We want to take their interests and try to grow them We’re really trying to hit their areas of interest,” Mrs. Reyes said.

“School teaches you stuff online and teaches you stuff virtually sometimes. But I joined this class because they are teaching us hands-on stuff,” Mr. Wolstenholme said. “When we’re out in the real world we can’t have someone to hang on to help us. We have to help ourselves. They’re teaching us real-life solutions to real-life problems.”