Next summer, students taking electrical classes at Omaha Benson High School could be eligible for $11-an-hour internships with a local trade union.
By January, students in a small-business academy could be whipping up lattes at the Mastercraft building in north downtown — and taking inventory, balancing the books and ordering supplies for the student-run coffee shop.
And next year, science-minded students could become part of a new Health and Wellness program, the result of a potential partnership between Benson and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
All three career academies could become part of the Benson High landscape as the school tries to reverse its falling enrollment while offering new, career-focused programs that appeal to students, parents and potential employers.
“We are hoping these programs are engaging enough, are enticing enough, that kids want to come to Benson to participate in them,” Principal Anita Baldwin said. “We're kind of a hidden gem.”
One of the programs — the Benson Electrical Systems Technology program, or BEST — is already off the ground. It is the only contractor-union apprentice-school partnership in Nebraska and one of only a handful of programs nationwide, Baldwin said.
Twenty-one juniors are enrolled in the two-year electrical program that will give them a foundation in electrical work and allow them, while still in high school, to complete the first year of the five-year apprenticeship program required for union electricians.
The details for the two other proposed academies — the Entrepreneurship Business Academy at the Mastercraft and the UNMC medical program — are still being ironed out. The UNMC program in particular is in its infancy, as officials at the school and hospital work out what an expanded medical academy at Benson would look like.
The academies will build on the school's decision science magnet program. Freshman and sophomore students take classes in aspects of decision science, which teach critical thinking and long-term planning, and can pick an academy to attend as a junior and senior. For now, academies will be capped at 25 students.
If implemented, school officials and boosters hope the new programs lend a needed sheen to Benson and stem the flow of local students opting to attend high school elsewhere.
Last year, Benson had the lowest enrollment of OPS' seven high schools, at 1,132. Two-thirds of area students chose a different high school. Its football team could be downgraded to Class B status next year if Benson slips from the list of the state's 28 largest high schools.
But Baldwin said the focus isn't just on boosting enrollment. Benson wants to give students hands-on, real-world experiences to prepare them for whatever comes next — college, vocational training or a full-time job.
“There's really a resurgence in the interest for high-wage, high-demand jobs, and that's our skilled labor,” she said.
The BEST program is a prime example. Trade groups have been trying to make inroads at local high schools as many of its baby boomer workers near retirement.
Careers as electricians, pipe-fitters and plumbers fell out of favor with some high schoolers as more opted for college, said Kevin Wetuski, the assistant training director for Omaha Joint Electrical Apprenticeship and Training.
A local union and a contractors association approached Benson last year to see if its members could make a presentation to several classes. With the help of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, that quickly spun off into an idea to recruit and train students.
“Our employment needs are significant,” said Allan Hale, executive director of the National Electrical Contractors Association. “We needed a way to begin filling the pipeline.”
Students enter the program as juniors and spend a year in electrician boot camp — learning the basics of safety and commercial and residential wiring. Next summer, depending on labor demands, they'll be offered internships where they can work on a job site making $11.11 per hour.
By their senior year, they'll enroll in year one of the electrical apprentice program, taking classes at Benson and traveling to the NECA/Local 22 joint training facility at 89th and L Streets for more training or demonstrations.
“It's a great opportunity for a kid who has an interest in the hands-on fields to find a career they can grow into,” Benson industrial technology teacher Andrew Ristow said.
Those who choose to stick with the program will get a leg up in the field, Wetuski said. By the time they graduate from high school, they could be 18 or 19 years old and making $15 per hour plus benefits while they continue the apprentice training.
The entrepreneurship and medical academies will offer the same kind of immersive experience, Baldwin said. Starting in January, the hope is to begin classes for the small business academy in the Mastercraft building, a kind of small business incubator. There, students can shadow startups and other companies. On top of taking classes, they'll run a coffee shop inside the Mastercraft, building the business from the ground up.
The UNMC academy could involve an expansion of the health system's popular high school alliance program, which allows high schoolers from 21 different schools to spend half-days at the hospital taking classes in anatomy or infectious disease taught by UNMC faculty. Or it could take a different direction, Baldwin said.
“With Benson, there's a specific stream of students where we're looking at how we'd expand that program to accommodate those students,” said Dr. H. Dele Davies, UNMC's vice chancellor for academic affairs. “That's the general gist right now. It's still quite early, and those details have not been worked out.”
The program typically accepts 55 students per year. One proposal for the new medical academy could involve increasing Benson's pool of applicants, by setting aside seats specifically for Benson students.
The program boasts impressive outcomes. Of the 196 students who participated in the high school alliance over the past four years, 96 percent went on to college and 73 percent plan to pursue a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field.
Thirty-five percent of those students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, one indicator of family poverty, and all but one has enrolled in college, Davies said.
“For many of them, it's a life-changing opportunity,” he said.
Karen Gardner, the secretary-treasurer of the Benson High alumni association, said Baldwin briefed the alumni group on the new academies plan earlier this month. She liked the vocational aspect, saying the electrical program harks back to Benson's blue-collar roots.
Several OPS school board members have been pushing for more career education, saying the district can't overlook kids for whom college isn't an option.
“This will be an opportunity for those kids who are not college bound, especially in the area where Benson sits,” Gardner said.
But Baldwin said this isn't about shifting Benson's focus only to the trades. The new academies are meant to appeal to all students, whether they're aiming for a full-time job or graduate school. One BEST student is planning on majoring in engineering but signed up for the program to learn the basics of electrical systems.
“That's the piece I really want to drive home,” Baldwin said. “These academies are addressing kids on a wide spectrum of aptitudes and needs for work and life outside of high school.”