(This story appeared in the 2013 Portraits edition, published July 31 in the Northfield News.)

The work-based learning program is not new to Northfield High School.

But Joe Jorgensen, the program’s coordinator of one year, has brought plenty of new things to the table during his first year in charge. And he has plans to keep the trend of change going.

The work-based learning program is a special education program that aims to help prepare students with disabilities to transition from school to adult life, according to the program’s brochure.

“This is the one area of special education I really like,” Jorgensen said — he has been teaching special education for eight years. “I feel it’s very important to get students to understand important life skills.”

Jorgensen teaches students how to apply for jobs, ace a job interview and develop skills that are valuable in the workplace. He also works with each student’s interests and local business owners to arrange for each student to work on a real job site during the class.

“I’ve worked with businesses like Bon Appetit at St. Olaf, Ace Hardware and CarTime,” said Jorgensen. “Almost everyone I have talked to [about the program] has been willing to participate — especially local businesses.”

Northfield Superintendent Chris Richardson believes the work-based learning program also reinforces the importance of the lessons taught in the classroom.

“The key with the work-based learning program is it gives kids the opportunity to experience the world of work while they are still in school,” said Richardson. “Many times, it helps kids see the relevance of the learning that they are doing.”

Students enrolled in the class spend four days a week, during their work-based learning class period, on a work site and one day a week in the classroom with Jorgensen. This can present some challenges.

“It is hard to know exactly how everybody is doing when you only see them in the classroom once a week,” he said.

Jorgensen tries to visit each work site once every week, but with 20 students at nine different work sites each semester it can be tough. During the 2012-13 year, Jorgensen gave his students a journaling assignment to keep track of their good and bad experiences on the job.

“Journaling was hard for some students,” said Jorgensen. “But next year with the iPads, I am planning something different.”

In lieu of pencil and paper, students in the work-based learning program next year will use their iPads to create a video journal of their work experiences. Jorgensen has a lot of plans to bring business and technology into the classroom in 2013-14. There is also the potential for the two job coaches, people from NHS that go on-site with students during the week, to do a video segment with students while they are working for use in a self-reflection project, according to Jorgensen.

He started bringing business to the classroom when he brought in business managers from the community to conduct job interviews with students during finals week during his first year on the job.

“It gave students a more authentic job experience,” he said. “Having that real person do the interview gives the process some validity — it’s not just the teacher saying these things are important.”

Moving forward, Jorgensen’s goals are about expansion and becoming more visible in the community. He is looking for different civic engagement projects for students in the program to participate in alongside the workplace experience they already get.

He also hopes to have a series of speakers come to his class to talk about their jobs, starting with his students’ parents.

Then, Jorgensen plans to use Skype or other video conferencing apps to connect with professionals outside of Northfield for the series.

“I have a lot of ideas about how to expand my program,” he said with a smile.

As “more of a five-year plan,” Jorgensen would love to see a career center for all students developed at the high school — a place to pick up job applications or ask about job interviewing techniques.

“I would like to see the influence of my program expand to not only my students, but all students,” he said.

Reach reporter Ashley Klemer at 645-1115 or follow her on Twitter.com @AshleyKlemer.