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Southern Minnesota students turning to four-year college alternatives
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More students are choosing to hold off on enrolling in four-year colleges following high school graduation, instead entering the workforce or enrolling in a technical program.

College enrollment nationwide dropped by 6.8% for the fall of 2020, four and a half times larger than the 2019 rate. Overall college enrollment rate declined to 56.5% from 60.5% in 2019, according to the “High School Benchmarks” report by the National Student Clearinghouse. The report provides data on high school graduates' post secondary enrollment, among other statistics.

Declines in enrollment were a little over two times steeper for low-income high schools compared to high-income high schools. Although the report found that public four-year enrollment was unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic, community college enrollment declined the most in low-income high schools.

Southern Minnesota education officials are also witnessing the trend of an increased number of recent graduates entering the workforce or attending technical programs right after high school.

“Students are making different choices about what they intend to do right after high school,” Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad said. “I think for many years, it was an assumption that when you got done with high school you went right in to get a college degree, while things have changed.”

The demand for skilled trade workers has increased, driving some students to attend two-year schools instead of four-year schools to pick up those skills. Elstad has also noticed that some students are saying they aren’t ready to make the commitment to a college education yet, instead jumping into the workforce to make some money and buying themselves some time to figure that out.

“I think we see some students that enter college and they kind of get in a quandary about exactly what they want to do. Now they've spent a year or two in tuition and then they say, ‘Well this wasn't what I wanted’ and so it kind of becomes a poor investment,” Elstad said.

Laura Attenberger, director of secondary relations/Perkins Grant at South Central College in Faribault has also noticed this hesitation. Student debt is increasingly becoming an issue for many college graduates. More information and education regarding the price tag of postsecondary education is available now, allowing students to make more informed decisions, she said.

Attenberger also pointed to the federal legislation known as Perkins V as a potential reason as to why this trend exists. Perkins V, signed into law in 2018, places an emphasis on career and technical education. It provides funding, resources and partnerships between colleges and school districts to offer career exploration opportunities, dual enrollment, and other workforce related projects for students.

Attenberger is working to get the word out there so students know their options before heading out into the world. In partnership with Faribault High School, South Central will launch its pathway program High School to College and Career (H2C) this fall. The first pathway established within the program is the Health Science pathway and students will be able to earn college credit. Despite the pathway being designed for Faribault High School, the pathways could be expanded to other high schools in the future.

“(Students) can earn college credit while they're in high school, through either concurrent enrollment or PSEO, and students are able to earn those college credits tuition free and they will be directly applied towards an award at South Central College,” Attenberger said.

Depending on the award earned, students spend less time at South Central College or they may even come out of high school with a short-term certificate. Another important component of these programs is embedding industry-recognized credentials. For example, students in the health sciences pathway have the chance to earn CPR or nursing assistant certification.

Since 2018, South Central College has hosted Career Navigator events inviting ninth grade students at Faribault High School and other regional high schools to attend. These events allow students to interact with industry professionals and educators in various career fields and participate in hands-on activities and tour learning spaces.

“Offering options for students to enroll in career and technical education courses allows them to start a Career and Technical Education that is going to get them into a high-wage, high-demand job and not leave college with a ton of debt,” Attenberger said.

OKIE OUT: Former Owatonna officer, city councilor remembered for his heart

It would be an understatement to say that Jeff “Okie” Okerberg left big shoes to fill – not only on the Owatonna City Council, but in the heart of the community at large.

Almost one month has passed since Okerberg died at the age of 62 following a two-week hospitalization. According to family, he had undergone a back surgery earlier in the year that led to an infection in his spine. He had a second surgery during his hospitalization that resulted in further complications his wife Elizabeth Okerberg said his body could not recover from.

His death ricocheted throughout the city as those who had known the former Owatonna police sergeant-turned-city councilor mourned the loss. Between his 30-plus years as an officer and nearly seven years on the council, Elizabeth said her husband was born to be a servant.

“Jeff was your servant just as he was my servant and a servant to our daughters,” Elizabeth said. “He protected us, guided us, strengthened us, and encouraged all of us.”

The memories of Jeff shared during his memorial service in May made one thing predominately clear: The man affectionately referred to as “Okie” left behind a legacy of putting others first and giving everything your all – especially when it comes to your heart.

Owatonna Police Sgt. Tracy Duchene was one of many officers who Jeff took under his wing during his decades on the force. Duchene said that Jeff’s dedication to his job, his team and his community remain unmatched.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone like him. He was so dedicated, always to work early and always with a smile on his face,” Duchene said. “Okie truly believed that no matter what we encountered in a shift that we would be making a difference.”

Duchene said that any officer who had the opportunity to work alongside Jeff would have a story to share, some of them funny, some of them inappropriate and most all of them showcasing the true nature of Jeff’s kind and loving heart. One memory Duchene holds fondly of his former mentor-turned-friend was when Duchene’s daughters would come to the station and immediately ask if Okie was working so they could try to sell him Girl Scout cookies. Duchene said Jeff would always be sure to order a case and every once in a while throw a box out into the patrol room.

“That’s who he was,” Duchene said during the memorial service after sharing a handful of stories that brought people to both laughter and tears. “My friend, your time on Earth has ended and you now stand strong with everyone who has passed before us. Those of us still here on Earth – your family, friends, the police department, and the people of Owatonna – are proud.”

Pete Dahl, who served on the SWAT team with Jeff, said that while there was a right way, a wrong way, and then “Okie’s way,” working alongside and simply knowing Jeff was nothing short of an honor.

“The fearlessness of that man … who retires as a cop and then puts their cell phone number out and says, ‘Call me whenever you want?’” Dahl said in reference to Jeff’s transition from officer to city councilor. “That is the depth of a man – everyone is first, everyone was first to the end.”

Elizabeth said that it wasn’t surprising when her husband who had only been retired a short while said he was considering filing for an upcoming city council election.

“It was a very brief conversation and I told him – who better than you?” Elizabeth said. “He knew all of the city, from the north to south to east to west, and the complexities that came with it. He was tenacious. He knew everyone from presidents of companies to the people coming in from out of town to build. He was connected with landlords, friends with all the convenience store workers, he would tell the truckers coming through town where to get the best home-cooked meals.”

“He went from protecting and serving the community in a law enforcement aspect to protecting and serving their dollars, their growth, and focusing on areas he could see expanding,” she continued. “He had faith in everyone and was always himself – I am very proud of who he was and always have been.”

Outside of his public-facing roles, Jeff made an impact through his involvement in Owatonna athletics. Not only was he a constant cheerleader for both his daughters, Jeff dedicated many years to coaching wrestling on the junior high level. Friend and former co-coach Rich Booe said that since first meeting Jeff in 1986 that their friendship blossomed much like the flowers in Elizabeth’s garden.

“Several times I have asked myself why did this beautiful man, wonderful husband, terrific father and friend get brought into my life,” a tearful Booe said during the memorial service. “That reoccurring question kept coming back until finally I came up with an answer, and that answer is that day that I walked into the wrestling room in 1986 was divine intervention.”

Tim Thorn, a former wrestler who was coached by Jeff, said he was the direct recipient of the generous heart Jeff gave to all those he encountered. Though Thorn admits that he went through some difficult times in his younger years, it was Jeff that not only refused to give up on him, but embraced him as a mentor and eventually a good friend.

“He was an angel here on Earth for a lot of people,” Thorn said. “He was the voice of reason and had this logical way of explaining things in Okie’s way where it just made sense. I couldn’t be more thankful to have met a fine individual as him.”

During his last years, Jeff devoted himself to his work on the city council. Thorn said that there was no better person to sit as a council member-at large, representing not just a single ward but the entire city as a whole, because Jeff was sincere in the potential he said of the community and its people. Council Chair Greg Schultz said he was first concerned about Jeff and how he wore his heart on his sleeve, not wanting the volatile nature of politics to hurt him, but realized he never needed to worry in the first place.

“Jeff had passion – lots of passion,” Schultz said. “All of our city council members have passion and some of us try to keep a lid on it or redirect it or keep it tightly focused, but it’s already right there boiling under the surface. Jeff did not hold his emotions back. His passion was intense and was all out there for everyone to see, and that is why I worried he could be hurt.”

“But silly me, Jeff knew that about himself, and he was quite OK with it,” Schultz continued. “It was part of his character, and now his legacy … All of us here today has witnessed Jeff’s passion in our own ways, and we are better off because of it. Jeff will live on within all of us.”

Twelve in the running for vacant Owatonna City Council seat

A dozen residents want to be the newest member of the Owatonna City Council.

Twelve people applied by Friday's deadline for the open Owatonna City Council member at-large position, left vacant following the death of Councilor Jeff Okerberg in May. Applications are currently being processed at the city with a tentative interview date scheduled for June 28.

During the most recent city council meeting, Owatonna City Administrator Kris Busse said they are aiming to have the interim councilor in place in time for the July 6 regular council meeting.

Those who applied are Daniel Boeke, Ethan Cords, Matthew Durand, James “Corky” Ebeling, Dominic Korbel, Angela Lipelt, Josh Meillier, Thomas Murphy, Peng Olson, Justin Ohnstad, Cindy Stelter, and Timothy VanRavenhorst, according to the city.

Boeke is retired from Harland’s Tire and Auto, having sold the business in 2017.

Cords is a stock trader and entrepreneur who graduated Owatonna High School in 2015. He currently serves on the Owatonna Human Rights Commission and recently ran for Owatonna mayor against incumbent Mayor Tom Kuntz in 2020. In 2016, Cords challenged then-president of the Owatonna City Council Les Abraham. In 2018, Cords took a shot at running for House District 24A, but lost his bid in the Democratic primaries. During his 2016 campaign, Cords vocally committed to running for governor of Minnesota in 2022.

Durand is a community planning specialist for Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA) and is a former Owatonna city employee. He served three years on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Minimal Impact Design Standards Committee and currently sits on the Steele County Highway Department Task Force. Durand ran for the other council member at-large seat against incumbent Doug Voss in 2020.

Ebeling is the former director of parks, recreation and government buildings for the city of Owatonna, retiring in 2018 after 42 years. He served as a Steele County commissioner from 2008 to 2016 and was a member of the Steele County Free Fair Board for 18 years. He has also sat on a variety of local, state and federal boards and commissions. Ebeling ran to reclaim his seat on the county board, representing District 4, in 2020 against incumbent Jim Abbe.

Korbel is the vice president of administration at Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) and is the former CEO of Fernbrook Family Center. In 2020, Korbel ran for one of the three open seats on the Owatonna School Board along with five other individuals.

Lipelt is the environmental services supervisor for the public works department in Mower County.

Meillier is the president and owner of Alexander Lumber in downtown Owatonna and is the former chair of the Owatonna Planning Commission, having served on the commission 10 years. Meillier is also a former member of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism board of directors.

Murphy is a former officer with the Owatonna Police Department, retiring in 2011 after more than 25 years of service in the patrol division.

Olson is the community relations manager for Federated Insurance. She currently serves on the Engage Owatonna committee, Alliance for Greater Equity board, and is a board trustee for the Owatonna Foundation. Olson was instrumental in Owatonna Forward, JumpStart Owatonna, and the River Springs Water Park grassroots project.

Ohnstad is a realtor with ERA Gillespie and real estate investor. He currently serves on the Southeast Minnesota REALTORS (SEMR) board, the Main Street Owatonna board, and the GEM Days committee.

Stelter is the owner of Central Park Framing and Finds LLC in downtown Owatonna. She is involved in GEM Days, Main Street Owatonna, and JumpStart Owatonna.

VanRavenhorst is the shipping and receiving supervisor at Arkema. He served as a military police with the U.S. Army Reserve for eight years before retiring in 2008.

The last time there was a vacancy on the city council prior to an election was in 2014, when Councilor At-Large Raymond Truelson died prior to the regular election. Following an application and interview process, former Councilor Bill Thompson was selected to fill the position as an interim council until the regular election took place a few months later. Okerberg won that election by 126 votes.

Whoever is selected as the interim councilor will serve the remainder of Okerberg’s term, which expires at the end of 2022. Because it is a member at-large seat, the application was open to anyone living within city limits.

The interim councilor will be coming on board at the beginning of budget season.