By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa
Before Avenue Scholars, Kayla Cruz, 17, a junior at Roosevelt High School, hadn’t considered attending Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) after graduation, but becoming an Avenue Scholar, has made her think it might be a good idea to start there. “I had always thought about getting the university experience. I want to leave Iowa for college but now I think I can do both – two years at DMACC and two years at a big university.” She’s referring to the two-year tuition grant to DMACC that students earn through Avenue Scholars, meant to help them get the certificate or associate degree they need for a good-paying job. Avenue Scholars was created in 2008 in Omaha as a social justice initiative to try to remedy poor educational outcomes for Black male students who had the lowest graduation rates in the public school system. It is designed as a support system that starts in high school and follows scholars through postsecondary school to the workforce, focused on careers in five industries where it’s possible to have a livable wage with an associate degree or less. The program came to Des Moines in 2022 with financial support from MidAmerican Energy and is currently at two Des Moines Public high schools. Originally, the program only had enough funding to start at Roosevelt, with plans to expand to East High School in 2024. When alumni heard about the program, they worked with the East High School Alumni Foundation to fund it a year earlier than scheduled and the two schools launched the program in 2023. Avenue Scholars plans to expand to North High School in 2024, and Hoover and Lincoln in the subsequent years.
Avenue Scholars uses a wrap-around career readiness curriculum to address barriers to education. Career Coaches focus on education and career exploration while the students are in high school, and then transition them to coaches who support them through college and their first six months of their career. During high school, Scholars meet daily in classes led by Career Coaches to explore career options within health services, business, automotive technology & transportation, information technology (IT), and skilled trades. They use individual assessments to help students learn about their strengths and how they relate to career options. “Each of them has their own skills, which is why we do the Gallup, to help them identify and express them,” says Noelle Nelson, the Executive Director. “We have relationships with businesses that trust us, and work with our students to provide internships so they can learn about their chosen industry throughout high school.” After graduation, students are assigned DMACC College Success Navigators who help them with college-related issues like registering for classes, applying for financial aid, and academic support to get through their courses.
Career Coaches, like Diana Echeverria at East High School, help students create career plans based on the program’s five guarantees: education, attendance, work experience, reading skills, and personal and financial well-being. There is no GPA requirement, but the program helps students recover their GPA to graduate on time. “It’s not about their grades, but are they open to being coached?” says Echeverria. The program partners with other career readiness programs to give students maximum exploration options and links them to area resources to address barriers like food and housing insecurities. “All of our students have hopes and dreams but don’t understand how to get there. That’s what we do,” says Echeverria. “We give them the support system and skills to work through life. I’m excited to see them explore their own values.”
For East High School junior, Juan Marquez-Nieto, 17, entrepreneurship is his calling. He runs a custom sticker business creating decals for walls and cars that he markets through social media and word of mouth. He never considered continuing his education beyond high school because he thought college was too expensive. After joining Avenue Scholars and learning about things like business taxes, he is looking forward to getting his associate degree and then transferring to a four-year university where he can continue learning how to be a successful business owner. He will be the first in his family to earn a degree.
It’s not just the course and internships that help Avenue Scholars learn about postsecondary career options. Scholars go on field trips to local companies where they can ask questions, learn about various professions, and envision themselves in occupations they may not have otherwise considered. Cruz recently participated in a trip to Mercy One where she explored health sciences. “It was fun to collaborate in a different environment and with different people,” she said of the experience. “It was a good opportunity to learn, and they shared about good-paying jobs there, even for high school students.” That’s exactly what the program is designed to do, especially for students who may not see themselves as college students but strive to have a career. “It’s all about making sure students have the skills and tools to be successful and pass it on to the next generation so they can be successful, too,” says Echeverria, a first-generation student herself. She loves being a resource to students because she remembers lacking that when she was a student and now works to ensure students see her as someone who can encourage and guide them towards finding their purpose and help remove barriers along the way.
There is an annual spring celebration to recognize the new Scholars that is attended by families, business and community partners and school administrators. The selected Scholars attend a few summer socials and begin working with their career coaches in the fall of their junior year.
If anyone is interested in the full-time opening for a Career Coach at North High School, they should visit the website www. https://www.avescholarsdesmoines.org/ where they can also learn more about the program.