Work-Based Learning Expands in Flathead County

As demand for career and technical education grows, Flathead Valley high schools are redefining what learning means for their students

By Denali Sagner
Students at Whitefish High School create trophies during a welding class. Beacon file photo

In addition to traditional English and math classes, local high school students are now stepping outside the bounds of the classroom to learn, as internship and Career and Technical Education (CTE) opportunities grow across the valley. Flathead County educators said that work-based learning programs help schools to cater to a greater array of students, beyond just those who find success in the traditional classroom setting, and help prepare students to join the local workforce. As demand for career education grows, teachers and administrators are navigating the future of the increasingly popular programs.

At Kalispell’s Glacier and Flathead high schools, an internship program that began earlier this year with 38 participants has “caught on like fire,” according to Kalispell Public Schools Director of Work Based Learning Mike Kelly, who now oversees more than 50 students in the program’s second semester.

With the backing of the district’s school board and administrators, Kelly created the internship curriculum to help address a lack of options for students who wanted to begin exploring post-graduate career options.

“Prior to the board adopting this curriculum, there wasn’t much of a formal process,” Kelly said. “It really would be part-time jobs, getting into the employment world on their own. That gets kind of tough because a lot of the times jobs that are available for high school students are hospitality or fast food or those kinds of things, and they may not be the career opportunity that students want to take.”

Now, the Kalispell school district partners with businesses and organizations across the Flathead Valley to help place students in part-time internships, which can be slotted into their everyday high school schedule, or before or after school. With this flexibility, Kelly said he is able to cater to more students, many of whom would have otherwise had trouble balancing a full class schedule and an extracurricular job.   

Current employers taking on Kalispell high school interns include Kalispell Ford, Bliven Law Firm, Northwest Plumbing, the Flathead National Forest, Glacier Jet Center, the Hockaday Museum, Kalispell Parks and Recreation and Knife River.

“It’s really getting to become very broad,” Kelly said. “We’re able to address many, many, many students and their unique requests for career path investigations.”

Kelly said he has seen overwhelming enthusiasm from both students and employers as the program has grown over the past year.

“It’s really not a hard sell, at all,” he said, adding that he has observed a sentiment among employers that taking on interns is “a smart thing to do and it’s the right thing to do.”

At Whitefish High School, principal Kerry Drown said he has seen far more demand for CTE courses than the school can fulfill.

 CTE offerings at Whitefish High School include business, marketing, welding, culinary arts and horticulture classes, though Drown emphasized that due to space limitations, not every course can be offered every year.

As the Whitefish School District has considered proposals for an expansion, plans to increase the school’s CTE space have sat at the forefront of the minds of teachers, parents and developers.

“Our woods and welding are in the same room, so we can only offer one or the other each period,” Drown said. “The culinary arts is in a very tight cramped space, and it’s a very popular program. So, we have a lot of limitations based on space.”

For Drown, an expansion of the high school will hopefully allow more students to enroll in CTE courses. He said the district also hopes to increase internship opportunities in the future.

“We hope to expand that. That’s a big area of opportunity for us. The better we get these other CTE programs developed, it just promotes that next level for kids,” he said.  

The excise demand for career-related curriculum extends beyond Kalispell and Whitefish, as schools across the Flathead Valley, and Montana at large, have expanded CTE courses and career guidance.

Bigfork High School offers business, family and consumer science, wood shop, auto shop and building trades classes. Columbia Falls High School’s CTE offerings include Glacier National Park’s first ever “School-to-Park” program, in which students build a fully-outfitted cabin over the course of the semester that is eventually relocated to the national park for staff use. The course, which was piloted at Denali National Park in Alaska in 2004, teaches students computer aided design and drafting software, materials cost estimating and construction planning.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) on Feb. 28 announced that the office will aim to hire 10 career coaches to guide students through internships and apprenticeships, partner with private employers and the Department of Labor and Industry to expand work-based learning opportunities and assist school staff in developing career-focused programs, helping to bolster the state’s CTE options.

“The addition of Career Coaches will strengthen the partnership between the public and private sector to grow our Montana workforce,” OPI Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said in a press release. “School counselors have a lot on their plate and these coaches will be a bridge between community businesses and community schools. When schools and businesses work together with families, our students succeed.”

Currently, 169 Montana high schools participate in CTE education, enrolling 42,051 students.

Kelly said that his ultimate goal is to expand the internship program so that it becomes a regular part of the high school curriculum, and emphasized the importance of preparing students for career success so they can live and work in the Flathead Valley, if they choose to stay. 

“I would like it to become so much a part of our culture that I can envision students in 9th and 10th grade saying to their buddies, ‘Well what year are you going to do your internship?’” he said.

“One of our objectives is to really assist and support in building the workforce in the valley so that our students can stay in the valley,” Kelly added.