Even before school dismissed for the summer, Owatonna Public Schools’ Career Pathways Program was transforming from a vision of aligning students’ high school careers to making their post-graduation plans a reality.
Aiming to engage students with a “Compass team” that will direct their educational journey with prospective career opportunities and an emphasis on students’ individuality, the district still needed someone to lead the charge. Enter Brian Coleman, a new hire for the district, but far from a new face in Owatonna.
“This is the perfect transition for me,” said Coleman, who in June left his position as the career and equity coordinator at Faribault Public Schools to join the district as the Career Pathways navigator. Though Coleman had worked in Faribault since 2015, he has lived in Owatonna for the past 21 years.
“Even though it’s only 12 miles away, there was always a disconnect of just kind of knowing what was going on in the community,” Coleman said about his time working in Faribault, adding that he loved the work he did and the people he worked with. “I feel it’s pretty important to be connected in those places, especially working in a school environment. If you don’t know the kids growing up in a community because your time is spent elsewhere then it just doesn’t connect.”
Though Coleman is new to Owatonna schools, he is in familiar territory as someone who is understands how to build bridges between the business community and students. Prior to his time in Faribault, Coleman worked for the Workforce Development Center for 15 years, starting as a career counselor and business outreach specialist and eventually moving into management.
Superintendent Jeff Elstad said that Coleman’s background and experience that relate to the new program is what made him stand out.
“Brian is already invested in our community so we are really fortunate to have someone with his skill set working in our system,” Elstad said. “We are still transitioning into Career Pathways, but we are further down the road now and Brian is an additional catalyst to move this along quicker.”
With his time at the center allowing him to have a finger on the pulse of the local business community, Coleman feels confident in stepping into a program that’s under construction.
“I am looking forward to meeting with the team and understanding what their ideas are,” Coleman said. “This position specifically is about developing and connecting students with career opportunities that provide promise to future job demand.”
Coleman will work in three locations throughout the district: Owatonna High School, the Alternative Learning Center and Owatonna Community Education working with adults. Though he anticipates there will be some work to be done regarding Career Pathways at the middle school level, Coleman said the brunt of his work will be at those three locations.
“Obviously we need to get down to that lower level to see what is being done there to help prepare students for when they get to the high school level,” Coleman said. “We want to continue these pathways throughout so it’s not just geared for one level of student; we’re really prioritizing providing these opportunities through the district.”
During a May school board meeting, Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath – who’s helping spearheading the program’s development – said leaders with Career Pathways will also make sure there are rigorous courses offered such as Advanced Placement, college in the schools and Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) opportunities. The program will also reinforce local partnerships and ensure the district is an essential driver in state and local workforce training and development, according to Kath.
Most importantly, Career Pathways doesn’t limit choice or promote a single pathway, Coleman said, adding that the main goal is helping students carve their own unique path.
“We want our students to be exposed to more and really just kind of have a better idea of what is out there,” Coleman said. “We want them to be able to make informed decisions about their future. When we talk about career pathways we are just trying to define the journey, not define the student.”
Elstad echoed Coleman’s sentiments, adding that Career Pathways is going to help expand the number of students who can be engaged in this kind of work by partnering with the already established SteeleCoWorks program.
“This is going to improve our impact with career pathways exponentially and help us achieve our goal in making sure every student is college and career ready when they leave our doors or get a diploma,” Elstad said. “Brian is the right guy for this and we are really excited about Career Pathways and taking this next step forward. This is an exciting new adventure for the entire community.”
While a lot of leg work has already been done prior to Coleman’s hire, there is still plenty left to do as the program continues to develop and grow.
“I have a lot of excitement as far as the things I want to bring,” Coleman said, noting that he’s anxious to reach out and connect with area businesses to see where partnerships can be developed. “I’m really looking for community partners and businesses to provide opportunities for the students so that they could ultimately see themselves in a particular field or role.”
Using the collaborative approach, Coleman is on a mission to locate businesses — regardless of what sector — that may have an interest in being a part of the pathways journey. Ideally, Coleman said he would like to sit down with as many business leaders in the area as possible to see how what they’re doing could align with the school’s programs.
“It’s about being that connector between the school, and the business and industry leaders that are wanting to do this work, but maybe have never been approached to do this or want to be involved but aren’t sure how,” Coleman said. “I am in the position where I can come to them and show them the curriculum and help see how it fits with what they are doing in their industry. Maybe they want to speak or provide an activity in a class. Or maybe we can bring the students out to visit and see how things are applied in the field. All of those ideas are great and I’m just ready to go.”