West Valley High School senior Jonathan Ramirez presents an immaculately prepared plate of pan-seared Chateaubriand-style steak with Béarnaise sauce, seasoned vegetables and chateau potatoes to a “who’s who” of school district counselors, administrators and special guests.
Fellow senior Anton Roig performed the final touches for each plate, and Ramirez is on-hand to deliver the meal and charm guests as part of the culinary arts senior final project led by teacher Lesley Dalke.
“I like the feeling of accomplishment – working with a team and being in-sync with each other,” Ramirez said.
“I’ve been involved in these sorts of events a couple times each year, and the students always do a great job,” said Dr. Gene Sementi, superintendent of the West Valley School District and a special guest at the event. “It’s really strong, quality food, and the service is excellent.”
Ramirez volunteered at the annual dinner to help fellow students and gain hands-on experience in pursuit of a career in the hospitality industry. He will attend Spokane Community College this fall to pursue an associate degree in applied science – hotel and restaurant management, putting him on track to earn a post-high school credential, which has become increasingly essential in Washington state.
According to recent research, there will be more than 740,000 job openings in Washington in the coming years. Most of those jobs will be filled by workers with a post-high school credential – such as a degree, apprenticeship, or industry certificate.
More than 90 percent of ‘career jobs’ – those with the best starting salaries and opportunities for advancement – will be filled by workers with a credential (73 percent) or some college experience (18 percent).
To that end the Washington Roundtable, a group of senior executives from the state’s major employers, has set a goal: 70 percent of Washington high school students will go on to earn a credential by age 26. Today, that number is estimated at just 40 percent.
“We know there are great jobs available in Washington state, and more are coming. Giving students opportunities to explore career options and helping them establish a path to a post-high school credential is incredibly important,” said Brian Jeffries, policy director for Partnership for Learning, the Washington Roundtable’s education foundation.
Partnership for Learning recently published a case study outlining the many programs that the West Valley School District deploys to increase career pathway awareness and move more students through high school graduation and on to post-secondary learning.
The district’s career pathway programming begins for all students in elementary school and grows through middle and high school. The district uses a computer-based program, Career Cruising, throughout students’ K-12 journey, beginning with interactive games for younger kids and evolving into more focused career activities and assessments in later grades. Students attend career fairs and engage in job shadow opportunities, personality and career interest surveys, and extracurricular clubs.
They develop and refine their individual pathways through use of the High School and Beyond Plan.
One of the guests attending the senior project meal is Debbie Reeder, K-12 Career Specialist for West Valley School District.
Reeder is part of a district-wide effort to help more students pursue post-high school education. She said seeing administrative staff and other supporters at events like the senior culinary project is indicative of those efforts. She’s personally known Ramirez for several years, and even recently helped him secure an apartment in advance of his exit from the state foster program into Extended Foster Care.
“They helped me set up with everything I needed to do and to graduate,” Ramirez said.
“The whole district rallies around students, especially if they don’t have a lot of support at home,” Reeder said.
In her five-plus years as a career specialist, Reeder said the district has made great efforts to expand its support for post-high school education. Through deliberate activities to reach every student, the district has created opportunities for students to explore their interests, learn about jobs available in the community and navigate the pathways to those jobs.
West Valley Public Relations Director Sue Shields said the efforts by Reeder, as well as teachers and administrators at every grade level, build better awareness of students’ future possibilities.
“Children usually only know what their parents do, plus nurse, doctor, firefighter and police officer,” Shields said. “We’re preparing kids for all kinds of jobs.”
By the end of middle school, Reeder said students have heard from at least 20 speakers, many of whom can speak to students’ specific career interests. At the high school level, Reeder works with school counselors on more individualized goals for students. That outreach includes college visits, job shadowing, internships and personalized career counseling. Students also spend one week on college career units outside of normal classwork.
“Each year we meet with them, we do more and more with Career Cruising and the career inventories in it, and students update their High School and Beyond Plans based on their interests,” said West Valley counselor Tami Henry.
“Some kids figure it out early, and some don’t, so you try to continue to educate them,” Henry continued. “The majority of jobs in the future will require some post-high school work, and while they may not know what their passion is yet, we encourage them to continue to work hard in their schooling.”
The scope of programming across various professions is backed by rigorous community support, Reeder said. She cites programs like Avista’s Energy Pathways and the Hagan Foundation Grants, which provide support and materials to electives and clubs, as great examples of employers supporting and investing in Spokane area students.
All of these career exploration and postsecondary planning efforts start to culminate in early May of students’ senior year with events such as Senior Signing Day, when West Valley recognizes all students who have committed to post-high school education, including college, military declarations, technical training and apprenticeships.
“The Signing Day event allows us as a district to celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of our seniors,” said Dr. Sementi. “And it powerfully illustrates that high school is not – and should not – be the end of these students’ educational journeys.”
The team of student chefs and serving staff close out the meal with a decadent lemon-lime coconut Baked Alaska. Then every senior in the room shares their plans for next year. All of them have definitive plans for continuing their education or working in their preferred profession.
For Ramirez, the meal marks a specific end to an educational journey and exploration that began in elementary school. It also marks the beginning. Ramirez leaves West Valley High School with a meaningful diploma and a clear pathway to a post-high school credential that is essential.