The challenge of COVID-19 has called for immense innovation on the part of our educators. They are coming up with creative solutions to make sure our children get a strong education, even in these trying times. In the Innovators Series, we profile their great work. 

New Orleans Career Center

Helicopter Pads, Blood Transfusion Labs, and Alon Shaya’s Kitchen

Torrance Taylor is the 2021 valedictorian of McDonogh 35 Senior High School. She wants to be a pediatric nurse practitioner by the time she’s 24, and she’s on the right path. She took half-days of classes at the New Orleans Career Center (NOCC) starting her junior year, through which she earned a Medical Assistant credential. She also earned sixteen credits toward a nursing degree at Chamberlain University School of Nursing. Now, she will continue at Chamberlain – having saved a year’s worth of tuition costs and time – to earn her Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

Steven Bovia just graduated from John F. Kennedy High School. Like Torrance, he attended NOCC for half-days, but he studied mechanical engineering and manufacturing throughout his senior year. Now, he is heading to the University of New Orleans’ College of Engineering to pursue his bachelor’s degree.

The more than 300 young people who attended classes at NOCC this school year all have different paths and interests. For a large percentage of NOCC alums, life after graduation includes both the first job on a career ladder and enrolling in college courses simultaneously. Others, like the more than 100 adults who have “re-skilled” for jobs in healthcare at NOCC during the pandemic, already had jobs but wanted new roles in the meaningful, higher-wage, and high-demand healthcare field.

NOCC is a hub for career and technical education for New Orleans. It partners with 18 high schools. These schools have students eager to engage with career and technical education (CTE), but might not have the staff or facilities for their own CTE program. Since NOCC opened in 2018, it has trained over 700 young people for roles in engineering and manufacturing, hospitality and culinary arts, and healthcare. Eventually, NOCC plans to work with 1,000 students and adults each year and expand the pathways offered to include information technology and digital media, blue/green infrastructure (water management and environmental roles), and skilled crafts (like welding and electrical work).

The pandemic changed NOCC’s operations, but it did not halt them. Executive Director Claire Jecklin was concerned at first. NOCC went to remote operations as soon as NOLA-PS did, and quickly realized they’d have to stay online for longer than others. Since NOCC brings together students from so many schools, they would serve as a “superspreader” if anyone got sick. Distanced career and technical learning, however, presented challenges.

“What makes the Career Center so exciting is that people are doing all the time,” Jecklin said. But it was harder to do things hands-on when students could not join in person.

NOCC innovated. Instructors made videos and online platforms demonstrating different skills. Then, they prepared supplies for students to have dropped off at their homes or to pick up. Students were quickly working with their own blood pressure cuffs and cooking kits at home.

A key part of NOCC’s program is work-based learning. To recreate this at a distance, NOCC partnered with the nonprofit Junior Achievement to access their Employer Hub. Students got to log on and “tune in” to professionals at work in different fields. They got to see a blood transfusion happen in the blood lab. They rode in a virtual ambulance and were able to see an air medical service helicopter. While an instructor from Ochsner Health taught them about putting a cast on a patient, they practiced doing so on their own arms.

“You would think at a time when everyone’s stuck inside, you wouldn’t be able to have those experiences,” Jecklin says. In some ways, though, the pandemic opened up opportunities to learn.

“You can get in places virtually that you normally wouldn’t get in,” Jecklin explains. “Because you can’t take 20 high school students into a blood lab. And so at a time when most people felt really challenged in getting out and seeing things, we were able to bring in new experiences.”

Once they could be at least partially back in the building, the Career Center simulated some of these experiences themselves. To help future medical assistants build their bedside manner, they practice talking with one another about their feelings. This is important; medical assistants are often the first people patients see when they step into a doctor’s office. They are the ones taking blood pressure and temperature and listening to what brought a patient to the office that day.

To prepare for this, students start each session by writing their own feelings down on a sticky note. They also take turns having discussions with one student playing the patient and the other as the medical assistant. They think through what they could say if a patient is struggling or in lots of pain. Then they practice and refine their answers.

Students in the culinary program tried out their skills firsthand as well. This year, their “capstone” project coincided with Teacher Appreciation Week. For their project, they came to the Career Center in small groups to prepare gourmet meals for their teachers.

“We had ahi tuna tacos with mango sticky rice and handmade fortune cookies,” Jecklin said. “It was amazing.”

For some of these students, their cooking skills might land them a job working with renowned local Chef Alon Shaya. Chef Shaya is on the board of NOCC; his own experience in high school culinary class helped launch his career today. He has connected Jecklin to the General Manager of the new Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, which will hold his new restaurant. It’s a connection he and Jecklin both see as opening another opportunity for hospitality and culinary arts graduates of NOCC.

NOCC helps all of its students plan their next steps, in many cases helping students understand how to start their careers and attend college at the same time. NOCC instructors and counselors also help students plot their first five years after they graduate. They leverage their local connections and relationships with groups like the New Orleans Business Alliance, YouthForce NOLA, and GNO Inc, as well as employers like Ochsner and LCMC Health.

Now that the traditional school year has ended, many NOCC students have completed their certifications and are on to their roles and colleges. But NOCC is committed to supporting those who haven’t quite finished yet. They innovated. It has been a difficult year, and some students needed more time.

“We’re just letting them continue all the way until July,” Jecklin explains. “If you’re not done, and you want to keep working towards that credential, we’re going to do that with you.”

And knowing that students may have competing priorities like summer jobs, NOCC is offering a $500 stipend for students to finish earning their credentials in partnership with the LA Department of Education Jump Start Summers program.

A group of 14 high school pre-nursing students are spending June completing skilled nursing rotations now that they are 18 and can be on site at a healthcare institution again.

At every turn, NOCC is taking steps like this – adjusting their model to meet the needs of students. They innovated, knowing that career and technical education need not be confined to one school or even one building. In just three years, they have become a hub for young people eager to pursue futures in some of the highest-demand jobs our region has to offer.

In order, left to right: Michael Samuel Sr., NOCC Director of Operations; Claire Jecklin, NOCC Executive Director, Carlin Jacobs, NOCC Deputy Director

And Jecklin says students take these programs seriously. They are aware that NOCC is a special place that offers up rare opportunities. They are ready to make the most of the skills, credentials, and connections they gained. They are visionary, and they are innovating, too, looking at the options available to them in our school system and charting their own way forward.

“I’m impressed with the way in which they are seeking out their path…the deep seriousness with which they view their future and the opportunity to get somewhere now.’

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