If dinner tables around the world one day are graced with a crunchier, sweeter carrot, perhaps people can thank the efforts of Erin Brakob back in 2019.

The Oregon High School senior will be spending time about 20 miles south of the confines of the school in the next year as one of around 70 juniors and seniors in the Oregon School District’s growing school-to-work program.

When their classmates are sitting in school learning the latest math or English lesson, these upperclassmen are waiting on customers at banks, practicing floral design, watching children at daycares and, yes, even helping to build a better vegetable.

There’s nothing like first-hand experience, and the program provides a growing number of opportunities in dozens of fields, such as agriculture, finance, biotech, law enforcement, IT, health care, graphic design, childcare and construction.

District officials have put an increased emphasis on postsecondary planning in recent years, and with that, the program is becoming “increasingly popular,” said OHS principal Jim Pliner.

“The opportunity to get out and have experiences that help students develop real skills while also informing their planning for the future is a large benefit,” he said.

Membership in the program isn’t given freely. It must be earned through an application and screening interview.

To participate, juniors and seniors must maintain passing grades and have no unexcused absences and must be taking a related class.

Once part of the program, students typically attend classes for part of the school day, spending the remainder at their worksites getting on-the-job training. Students receive a full credit per semester in the program – double that of a normal OHS course, said school-to-work coordinator Greg Granberg.

“They’re averaging 12-15 hours a week of work, so they get that credit to make sure they are not penalized by doing this, because we know their learning situation is so amazing, and really sets them up for a brighter future,” he told the Observer last week.

Granberg said the program will probably exceed 100 students by the end of the year, continuing a trend of higher student participation since he started as coordinator in 2012. He said the program continues to grow because of student interest and job opportunities.

“The cool part is it’s growing naturally so far; a lot of word of mouth,” he said. “Students are hearing from other students, parents hearing about it from other parents and employees are hearing, ‘Hey you should try this, it works really well.”

Many advantages

During the 2018-19 school year, the average student in the school to work program worked 625 hours, and the group collectively earned more than $300,000.

“I’m probably getting two or three phone calls a week from local employers looking to hire high school students,” he said. “As employers are seeing such a benefit from the school-to-work program, they request more students.”

Granberg said the program has around 40 businesses it’s working with this year and “well over 100” that have hired students in the past few years. He said most of the jobs are within 10 minutes of OHS, but some branch out as far as Madison, Mount Horeb and Sun Prairie.

While the program’s positives for high school students seem obvious, Granberg said he’s seen success from the perspective of all involved, even parents.

“Students love they’re getting to apply what they’re learning and doing it in an authentic setting with professional mentorship,” he said. “The parents love that their student is becoming more independent and using time management skills and is really transitioning into that next stage of life. And employers are also seeing a benefit on their team morale, and their currently employees get to share their passion for the profession.”

For students, Granberg said the chance to work in a professional setting while still in high school is a priceless experience. He said it gives them a “huge advantage either way,” whether they decide to follow that career path or learn that they shouldn’t.

“Even if it’s not the career field they want to go into, they’re so much farther along because they have all those employability skills and the ability to communicate with people in other generations and other backgrounds,” he said. “But for those students that realize, ‘This is what I love,’ and want to go on, they are so far ahead.

Finding the path

Brakob, who became interested in genetics during her freshman biology class, started working at UW-Madison BioTech lab this week after she was accepted in July into the Dane County Youth Apprenticeship Program biotechnology program.

“I figured I could do something I enjoy and get paid for it and use this as an opportunity to see if I want to pursue a career that involves biotech,” Brakob said. “I found a lab that specializes in genetics within carrots … that’s the area of biotechnology that I most enjoyed.”

Phil Simon, professor in the UW-Madison horticulture department, works with Brakob at the UW Bio Lab, where they are studying the genetic properties of carrots and how to make them more palatable. Simon is the lead researcher for the National Carrot Improvement Program – studying how to produce better carrots for both growers and consumers.

To help get some field results, he works with Madison restaurants to get feedback on new strains of carrots. Monday, Brakob was busy preparing sets of red and purple carrots to be delivered. Later, she extracted sugars from various carrots to determine sweetness.

“Most consumers say they wish (carrots) could be a lot sweeter, so we do a lot of work on that,” Simon told the Observer.

This semester, Brakob finishes school at 10:30 a.m. and then heads to the lab for a noon to 4 p.m. shift (depending on soccer practice). She’ll need to work 450 hours to complete the apprenticeship, all the time working “shoulder to shoulder” with a group of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students.

“It gives her a good chance to see what’s going on, and she gets an idea of how she may want to fashion her studies as she goes along and tries to achieve her career goals,” Simon said.

As for working in a high-tech genetics lab, Brakob admitted that while “it’s a little scary” to be surrounded by expensive, fragile equipment, she’s glad she applied.

“How many other high school students can say that they have worked with such expensive or high-tech equipment?” she said. “School-to-career is a lot of work both with school and outside of it, but it provides you with work experience that will help prepare you for future jobs.”

Altering the path

Sometimes, finding out what you don’t like can as helpful as finding out what you do.

That’s the case for 2019 OHS graduate Lauryn Rieder, who worked for Oregon Daycare Inc. for several years.

She figured out after going through the school to work program that while she loved working with kids, maybe the tiny tots weren’t for her.

She worked every weekday from 7:30-10 a.m., then attended classes at OHS. She told the Observer that was “weird at first,” but she soon settled into a routine.

“It was getting up, going to work and then going to school, then after-school stuff if I had practice, then I would go home and do homework,” she said. “It felt more like how it was going to be when I graduated.”

Rieder credited Granberg and ODI staff for being flexible with her schedule and providing “really good experiences.” She said it guided her decision to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this fall to study special education.

“I gotta do what I love, which is to be with and work with kids, but I thought maybe I wanted to be an elementary school teacher,” she said. “Working with (toddlers) was very beneficial, because it’s kind of opened my eyes to maybe I don’t want to do this the rest of my life, maybe I want to work with older kids.”

Reider said she definitely recommends juniors and seniors find out more about the program, regardless of their future plans.

“If you do go to college or if you work, it gives you a better idea of what you want,” she said.

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.