This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
OMAHA — On his first trip to Nebraska, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona held a turtle named Oogway in an urban agricultural lab. He rapped a bit in Spanish with teen-agers in a construction-focused academy.
And he left Wednesday’s tour of Omaha Bryan High School saying that its career-connected technical academies, which prepare students for college or direct entry into a job, represented what the Biden administration wants to see more of across the country.
“We chose this school today, the day after the State of the Union, because I want to lift up what we’re seeing here,” Cardona said.
What he said he saw in Bryan students — and programs featuring Urban Agriculture; Design & Construction; and Transportation, Distribution and Logistics — are examples of how the country can better meet future demand for “high-skilled, high-paying” jobs expected through the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Locally, there’s a movement to pave the way for some of those jobs in Nebraska. A bill before the Nebraska Legislature would authorize a state match for any federal funds a manufacturer locating in the state would obtain under the CHIPS Act, which the president signed into law in August. The act allocates $54 billion to help rebuild an industry that had fled overseas.
Cardona was escorted through Bryan’s 1,800-student “Bear” territory by students who led him to the urban ag academy’s greenhouse (that’s where he met Oogway the turtle), the logistics warehouse and the hall where students work on framing small houses and other construction projects.
Along his route to different classrooms, he chatted with kids in the hallways, and on a few instances, the former teacher with Puerto Rican heritage threw out some Spanish phrases. Though located in Bellevue, Bryan is part of Omaha Public Schools and prides itself on cultural diversity, as students from more than 30 countries who speak 33 languages are represented in its classrooms.
‘Raise the Bar’
The education secretary has underscored the benefit of speaking more than one language. In his recently announced “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” initiative, he said that learning multiple languages should be expected of U.S. students. And he spoke of administration goals for 2023 that included the need for “reimagining college and career pathways” and to challenge the view that “it’s four-year college or bust.”
Dual enrollment courses for local colleges, Cardona has said, should start at 11th grade and allow ambitious high schoolers to graduate with an associate’s degree or a credential “without paying a penny.”
He has said that the U.S. Education Department will expand opportunities for technical assistance and use of federal funding, and that if the department’s recommended pathways are forged, students could compete better on a global stage.
Highlighting Cardona’s visit to Bryan was a roundtable conversation with about a dozen students who spoke to him about their academic journeys and related job internships — Bryan pairs its students with up to 90 employers that offer job experience.
Making sure he heard from each teen, Cardona said he measured success in part by how the young people viewed the programs. After hearing from the students, he said he was impressed with the “options” the career-connected academies seemed to offer the budding workforce.
“You’re getting valuable skills that are transferable,” Cardona said.
Connection to outside world
For example, Leslie Lopez is in the transportation and logistics academy, where, as part of the curriculum, students pack up boxes filled with food for a pantry. Lopez plans to go into the medical field but said she gained appreciation in the academy for service and “helping people” that she expects to carry over to her future as a doctor.
Also at the roundtable was Bryan Benitez, a senior who already has racked up 38 college credits while in high school. He saw his time in the Advanced Academics academy as a “starting point” for his dream career: neurosurgery.
Cardona said he was impressed with the internship partnership Bryan has with employers, saying internships could lead to a lifelong job. “It gives us that connection to the outside world,” he said.
Senior Arian Gomez said he chose the transportation and logistics pathway because it aligned with the trade his dad works in. As part of the program, he has an internship with a car dealership.
When he graduates, he hopes to get an associate’s degree to work as an automotive technician and get a commercial driver’s license to drive a truck. Ultimately, he intends to work on a bachelor’s degree so he can move up into the management side of a business.
“You could take your father’s business to another level,” Cardona said. “That’s exciting.”
‘We see you, we see you’
Of Cardona’s visit, Gomez and Benitez said they were proud to be able to showcase their school and teachers.
Dr. Rony Ortega, Bryan’s principal, said that while the technical academies were available in the past at Bryan, this was the first year for “wall-to-wall” academies, meaning that all students must participate in one. Among other officials at the secretary’s visit were OPS superintendent Cheryl Logan. Ortega said he appreciated the Nebraska stop, which marked Cardona’s 38th state he’s visited.
Said Ortega: “Having the education secretary come to Bryan tells our kids, ‘We see you, we see you.’”
For Gomez, the visit by the Latino cabinet member — who told the students he used to earn money by fixing cars — was particularly meaningful because of the auto connection.
“We got to express ourselves with someone recognizable in this country,” said Gomez. “It felt really good.”
After Bryan, Cardona went to La Vista’s Educational Service Unit #3, where he participated in another roundtable conversation — that time with principals, superintendents and therapists to discuss the mental health services provided to students.