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Home News & Events Center for the Future of Arizona Forges Partnerships to Empower Peoria Students in Expanded Career and Technical Education

Center for the Future of Arizona Forges Partnerships to Empower Peoria Students in Expanded Career and Technical Education

Posted on May 21, 2024

Achieving the level of professional success many students hope for doesn’t usually occur organically. It’s often a long-term process that includes a significant number of steps. One of those steps could be an internship—or other work-based learning opportunities, Internships can begin in a student’s junior year of high school. But what if the preferred career field doesn’t offer those opportunities in your hometown? Until recently, that was an obstacle for Peoria Unified School District high school students who were interested in construction jobs. But thanks to a partnership between Peoria Unified (PUSD), the City of Peoria, and Center for the Future of Arizona’s Arizona Pathways to Prosperity initiative, more students are gaining diverse experiences to propel their educational & career journeys.

Barbara Coakley, Peoria Unified’s Career and Technical Education Director, says that construction-focused students weren’t finding hands-on internship opportunities—creating a dead end of sorts for pursuing their career interests.

“Oftentimes, we have kids work through our construction programs, sign up for (an) internship, and then we don’t always have placements for them,” Coakley explains.

Coakley has heard from the city’s partners in the construction industry that they’re short-staffed and feel less able to focus on students who would need to be closely monitored. Meeting with Center for the Future of Arizona (CFA) and the City of Peoria led Coakley to learn about a Peoria-based business—Highway 85 Creative—that specializes in construction for trade shows, events, and exhibits.

Peoria Unified had already been collaborating with CFA to find a way to bridge the gap that left many students in the construction program without work-based learning experiences. Erin McGehean, College and Career Pathways Project Manager for CFA, wanted to introduce a fresh approach.

“Can we pilot something in the construction field so that we can show industry that there are some opportunities for getting students some more work-based learning experiences,” McGehean recalls.

It was Karen Calivas, a member of Peoria’s Business Retention and Expansion team, who introduced Highway 85 to PUSD. Calivas learned about the company as part of her nearly two hundred annual visits to businesses around Peoria. Calivas was immediately impressed by Highway 85’s warm culture and creative environment.

“Once I walked into that supportive environment, and then I heard about Peoria Unified School District’s interest in securing partnerships with businesses, I knew that Highway 85 had to be included as one of their partners,” Calivas says. “Not only does Highway 85 do construction, but they do printing, graphics, and paint--a lot of different components that I don’t think students know are part of the construction industry.”

Highway 85’s leadership was interested in offering work-based learning experiences as soon as the City of Peoria and the school district reached out.

Nicole Matt, the company’s Director of Sales and Marketing, says it was a natural fit. As Highway 85’s team of craftspeople get older and move closer to retirement age, the business is excited to find and teach a new generation to join the construction industry.

“Our team here is passionate about younger students and how we can pass along our knowledge and skillset (from) builders and craftsmen in the industry,” Matt explains. “The construction industry’s so fragmented these days, and young students have a variety of options, so we love being able to keep the skills and craftsmanship going.”

Matt adds that Highway 85 considered the internships a great way to give students real world experience of working for a company with significant goals and daily deadlines. Those factors will help the students’ readiness and attractiveness to businesses that are looking to hire them post-graduation.

“Everybody here was invested in them, (sharing) knowledge that would help (the students) in the future,” Matt says. “We identified a couple of projects that made sense for them and their skill level—and we were very impressed by their skill level—they were able to jump in and work on some live projects.”

Highway 85 has also been communicating with peer businesses about how offering work-based learning opportunities to PUSD students has been rewarding for the company, introducing a successful way to find future employees.

Peoria Unified debriefed monthly with Highway 85’s pair of interns, wanting to know what they were learning and how the internship was progressing, building on foundational skills they gained previously during Peoria Unified’s CTE program including certifications like OSHA 10. Barbara Coakley says the impact grew when the interns talked with their fellow students.

“They shared with other students their experiences at Highway 85, which is very powerful—these seniors that have gone through the courses, received their certifications, and now have these work-based learning experiences, are now sharing that information with younger students in our district so they can see this as a potential pathway for themselves as well,” Coakley says.

The success of the internship program was taken to a higher level because of guidance from CFA’s Arizona Pathways to Prosperity initiative. Erin McGehean says the partnership with Highway 85, Peoria Unified School District, and the City of Peoria fit in smoothly with how CFA marries initial career exploration, work-based learning opportunities in and out of the classroom, and early college experiences. The entire process becomes mutually beneficial.

“It is important for students to gain hands on work-based learning experiences in their fields of interest. By participating in internships at a business, students get to see the variety of career fields they could pursue and they get to meet professionals they would not otherwise meet. It is also important for industry professionals because they get to help mold the next generation and see first-hand the talent of these students,” McGehean says.

Highway 85 is going to continue offering opportunities to Peoria Unified construction students. But the business hasn’t stopped there, according to Sales and Marketing Director Nicole Matt.

“We have other students with us here—one in sales and one in marketing—and they’ve been fantastic as well,” says Matt. “That has parlayed into a few other opportunities for internships for students.”

As CFA’s Arizona Pathways to Prosperity continues to help bring education and business leaders together, successful outcomes for students and industries are bound to continue growing and shaping the modern framework for educational and workforce pathways that lead to long-term success for all Arizonans and the state as a whole.