The following was originally published by North Country Public Radio.
BY AMY FEIEREISEL (NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK CORRESPONDENT) , IN ELLENBURG DEPOT, NY
Though rural high school students graduate high school at a higher rate than the national average, they are much less likely to pursue post-secondary education.
CFES Brilliant Pathways is an international non-profit trying to change that. They set up college and career readiness programs in rural high schools. In the North Country, CFES is in about two dozen high schools. One of them is Northern Adirondack Junior Senior High School, in Ellenburg Depot.
Finding a career instead of a job
For Nicole Connors, helping kids figure out what they want to do after high school is personal. “I was a first generation college student,” said Connors. “And I just I think it’s important to have the students to be able to have access to things that they might not have been able to experience otherwise.”
Connors has seen firsthand that not all kids have involved families, or parents with the resources to help them explore post-high school options. So she’s organized that.
When her school, Northern Adirondack, didn’t have a formal college and career readiness program, like CFES, Connors ran a College Club. “In years past, I brought groups of 20 kids to Boston. We visited two colleges, and they got to experience what it was like to live in the city and just kind of see everything…it’s about exposure,” said Connors.
In 2023, Connors is the teacher liaison for the CFES Brilliant Pathways Program at Northern Adirondack. The mission is straightforward: keep kids in school, and get them set up for careers when they graduate.
That looks like college trips, and tours of local factories, and walking through certification programs in trades. Northern Adirondack’s principal, Mike Lockman, says the program helps students to see, “What are the opportunities? What are the future jobs out there? How does that apply to me? And it’s not like, okay, every kid’s going to college, because that’s not realistic.”
What is realistic, he says, is that each student graduates with a plan and a pathway. That can look like: a four year school like Clarkson, a two year associate’s degree at North Country Community College, going into the workforce in a trade. Lockman says about half of the junior and seniors at Northern Adirondack attend CV Tech, the local BOCES trade program.
“A lot of those classes are finishing with college credits,” explained Lockman. “So those kids are saying, ‘Okay, well, maybe I’m gonna go to SUNY Canton or something like that’ to get a certification.”
Showing possibilities and building confidence
Lockman says the CFES Brilliant Pathways Program helps make sure they’re talking to every kid, and gets families talking about post-high school planning earlier. “It really gives like a foundation for us to be communicating with the kids and help them to think about it, talk about it, you know, go home and communicate with their parents about it.”
Another pillar of the CFES program is a peer mentoring program between high school and middle school students. At Northern Adirondack, about 75 kids meet twice a month in the cafeteria for team and skill building activities.
Chris Mazella is the CFES Program Director for Northern Adirondack. He’s a retired high school principal from the North Country (he worked in nearby Peru for most of his career). “We match up junior high students with high school students, they go through activities that support essential skills, like networking, teamwork, and agility,” said Mazella.
On the day I visited, they were given the challenge of building a tower out of plastic straws, tape, and paper, that would support a cup full of pennies.
Groups of kids crouched around lunch tables covered in plastic straws and tape. They had just fifteen minutes to build their structures.
At one table, Tristan Craig and Kaleb Gray, both 15 year old sophmores, were taping cut up straws to a paper platform.”We kind of just drew a picture,” said Gray, “and then just ‘sent’ it.”
Tistan Craig laughed and said, “it’s a piece of paper with straws and tape. And it’s really bad.”
Craig and Kaleb are mentors. One of their mentees, eight grader Gia Taylor, chimed in. “It looks like a spider, a very flat, white spider.” Taylor and the other mentee, Katherine Hart, teased each other and their ‘mentors,’ then burst into laughter as their cup of pennies fell off their straw structure.
Making connections post coronavirus
This is basically what was happening all across the room; a lot of joking, silliness, and laughter.
But all that fun is actually kind of the point, said Nicole Connors, the teacher liaison. Many of the students in the peer mentoring program struggle socially or academically. “We see kids and they’re smiling today and laughing that might not necessarily do that very often,” said Connors.
And students that wouldn’t normally interact are forming relationships, explained Connors. “So they have somebody to talk to. Some of these kids are at risk. And the mentors are there just to kind of be like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ in the hallway.”
She says students ask her all the time, “When’s our next meeting?” and that the beneift of the peer mentoring is really “connections. Some of these kids don’t have connections.”
Students can volunteer for the peer mentoring group, but teachers also suggest kids: both those that they think will benefit from leading, and those that could use a friend or role model. Tiana Tsaroj is a health educator at Northern Adirondack and helps out with CFES. “We are pulling in kids that we notice are at risk or declining in one area, “said Tsaroj. “Even just the other day, I put out sort of a line about a student that I was seeing some troubling things with and he was there today at the activity.”
Tsaroj says a big part of college and career readiness is engaging kinds in high school before they go to college, and building their confidence. She says that’s especially important now, after the last few years of coronavirus turmoil. “COVID sort of put a big question mark over a lot of things, like how do I act? How do I be? Who am I you know?”
Upcoming events this spring include a trip to local manufacturing plants, a tour of Clinton County Community College, and a shared career, college, and agricultural fair.