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Al Franken, 'Giant of the Senate': Minnesota Senator visits Detroit Lakes, talks career pathways

Senator Al Franken was cracking jokes left and right when he stopped at BTD on his "Advancing Career Pathways" tour--but more than jokes, he also listened to school administration and business personnel in the community talk about the ways in which they are working to strengthen career pathways for kids who are graduating from high school. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)1 / 3
Senator Al Franken listens as a current student discusses her experience in a school-to-work program at the Detroit Lakes High School. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)2 / 3
Those in attendance pose for a group photo. The conversation centered around local school-to-work programs and touched on mental health issues. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)3 / 3

Senator Al Franken, who satirically calls himself the "Giant of the Senate" in his new book, stopped by BTD Friday afternoon on his "Advancing Career Pathways" tour to talk about ways Detroit Lakes is working to strengthen the partnerships between schools and businesses in the community—and the Detroit Lakes High School had much to share about its progress with businesses thus far.

Principal Darren Wolf shared that the high school just hired its first two academy teachers, and they are excited to move forward with the academy-model school next year, which will begin with the ninth graders and progress from there in the coming years.

"Knowing that we have a pretty good impact on the businesses in town, we want to continue doing that," said Wolf.

Franken complimented the school administration on how "community-oriented" the new program sounds, saying it will be a positive for the young adults who want to stay in the community after graduating from high school by allowing them to build relationships and career opportunities in their hometown, so they can stay near family—and start families of their own.

"It's about strengthening your community," said Franken. "We need a skilled workforce."

The goal of the academy-style high school being just that: to create a skilled workforce, without forcing kids to leave the community to get a degree and rack up student debt before returning to the area for a job.

Vern Schnathorst, the school-to-work teacher at the high school, said the school-to-work program is—and has been for many years—doing, on a smaller scale, what the academy-based high school will aim to do in the coming years.

Schnathorst said that right now the program is "taken on an elective basis," where the student leave the high school for about two to three hours per day for an internship with a local business. He said about 100 to 120 high schoolers do some sort of career exploration per year.

"With the academy, that will be something, hopefully, we could offer every student," he said.

Schnathorst went on to say that "high-demand" will most likely dictate the pathways offered through the school. In the Detroit Lakes area, that's industries like manufacturing and healthcare, which is where a lot of the school-to-work students are currently interning.

"This year, we'll have 25 students that will get their Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license," he said.

One high schooler, who was present at the "round table" discussion with the senator, actually shared her experience with the school-to-work program, saying she started out getting her CNA to work at Ecumen and then went on, taking a CPR class and eventually interning on the OB floor at the hospital where they recently offered her a job.

"I'm very grateful that I've had the opportunity to do this," she said, adding that she's now looking into going into a healthcare career because of it.

As for other "career pathways" in the area, many local businesses have been working with M State as well, and M State has been working with the high school to make career training more readily available to students with mobile training trailers.

But M State's Academic Dean Steve Erickson said they are hesitant to go into a manufacturing program because of cost and concern about whether or not they would get the students for the program.

Though Erickson did add an interesting thought for the senator to chew on: "Having additional mentors for these students is going to be so important for them."

The community also faces other hurdles for strengthening the bridge a new graduate faces when crossing over into the workforce, as there is a lack of affordable housing for new graduates who are just starting out in their careers as well as a lack of daycare providers for workers with children.

So, while the jobs may be there, and while the career pathways may be strong, new graduates in the area are still struggling to stay in the area and fill those empty positions.

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