Custer Capable: Where Coming Home Counts

Custer Capable: Where Coming Home Counts

By Tyler Dahlgren

Investing in the Youth

A handful of years ago, Custer Economic Development Corporation’s leadership team recognized a critical need to take a hard look at the county’s workforce.

The group brainstormed ways to ensure a steady, reliable influx of workers into a county that produces 46 million bushels of corn annually, the most in Nebraska, and, in 2013, was home to 12 new businesses, 11 expanded businesses and 100 new jobs.

“We really needed to start investing back in our youth,” said Jenny Fox. “So, we asked ourselves ‘How does that happen?’”

That's where this story begins.

If you were to locate Custer County on a map, you’d find it in the heart of the heartland. Smack dab in the middle of Nebraska, directly north of I-80 and its stretch of staple cities and towns like Kearney, Lexington and Cozad.

Custer is a proud county, Fox said, with a tradition rich in collaboration and a community built on lending hands. So, when Fox and her colleagues approached each of the county’s six school districts with the initial plans for a career readiness program called “Custer Capable”, it wasn’t a surprise to see all six districts and school boards quickly jump on board.

“When you are talking about rural communities, it is so essential that everybody works together,” said Fox, Capable’s Executive Director.

Fox spent the first three years building the program, searching for thoughts and opinions of those in the community and soliciting input and cooperation from county businesses. What she found was an abundance of participation.

Year four was spent in transition, as Custer Capable felt out its own capacity, growing smaller projects into bigger ones. Four focus areas were formed: Manufacturing, Health Care, Agriculture and Construction, and Business Entrepreneurship.

“It has taken some time to get everybody, from the businesses to the administrators, on the same page,” Fox said. “All of our superintendents have said it’s time for us to really dive deep. The hospital is ready to dive deep. All of our schools are ready to dive deep, and so are businesses.”

It took a couple of years to get Custer Capable off the ground, and heading into the 2018-19 school year, everybody is officially on the same page.

“Now we’re ready to turn the page together.”

Providing Direction

The collaboration in this area began long ago with the Sandhills Education Co-op, which first introduced distance learning and enriched an already highly-efficient practice of resource-sharing. Superintendents from Custer County and beyond would meet on a quarterly basis to discuss needs and conjure up solutions.

Gordon Goodman is in his first year as superintendent of Ansley Public Schools, but has carved out a long career in education in the relative area, including more than 20 years as a teacher at Broken Bow, the central hub of Custer County.

“I grew up in Broken Bow, and knew I had a great education at Broken Bow High School and wanted to make sure that when I became an administrator my kids, no matter where I was, had as many opportunities as possible,” Goodman said.

Goodman has seen firsthand the community’s shift to prioritizing a direction when it comes time to graduate its students. The horizons have broadened beyond a four-year school, though they certainly still include that very popular option, thanks in large part to the opportunities granted by Custer Capable.

Goodman’s daughter graduated from Burwell with her Med-Aid and CNA certificates already in hand, which prompted a venture into the field of nursing. She’s currently a year away from a nursing degree.

 “I think we’ve embraced the idea of getting more than just a quality education,” he said. “We want to provide an extreme education and help our students, as they leave our building, obtain a better sense of direction as to where to go.”

In the long run, many of those paths will hopefully lead back home.

“The future of our county exists in the youth here,” said Fox. “The only way that we are going to feed our workforce is if we instill that feeling in our kids that we want them back.”

It’s a dynamic change from when Fox was in high school.

“We were told ‘Make sure you can find something to do somewhere else because you probably aren’t going to have that opportunity here,’” she remembers. “I would say over the past 10 to 15 years, we have seen that change in Custer County.”

The message has evolved into an alluring one.

“People have said ‘Hey, come back because we have great jobs here,’” Fox continued. “We have great things for you here.”

Community Collaboration

In her role, Fox plays the part of a bridge builder between community businesses and schools, making sure communication remains constant and doors remain open.

“I do a lot of that, just making sure everybody is still doing what they should be doing to keep engaging their kids,” she said. “We want each and every kid that leaves their school system to know that no matter what they do, they can come back to Custer County to do it.”

Goodman has been quickly amazed at the area business representatives that attend monthly Custer Capable board meetings, noting their excitement level. They know there’s an immediate and future need for the types of jobs, whether it be welding, electrical or nursing, that the program provides.

 “My ultimate goal is to give every kid a plan,” Fox said. “When they come in from 8th-grade transitioning to their freshman year, we should be talking to these kids about what careers they are focused in.”

By the time students are juniors and seniors, they are ready to job shadow in the community, and the chance to feel out a career field through hands-on experience. In addition to job shadowing, Capable has brought many businesses into the classroom for presentations.

The program impacts all students, K-12, through the innovative HEROs program, which intermingles high school students with elementary students in a tutor or mentor role, and classroom sponsorships, something Fox would like to see more of.

“We cannot tell kids enough that we want them back in the community unless we start talking to them at the youngest age possible,” Fox said.

One of the more amazing things to come out of Custer Capable’s first four years, Fox said, is the STEM Mobile Lab, a product of a grant written with Custer Public Power District and modeled after the one currently in use by Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD).

The lab travels to all six districts in Custer County, and seven others that fall in CPPD’s service territory. Last year alone, over 1600 students were able to learn in the STEM Mobile Lab, including Goodman’s elementary class at Ansley.

“It was a cool deal, and the kids really enjoyed it,” he remembers. “It just sparks their interests in different avenues.”

Capable’s Future

Custer Capable is embarking on its most exciting year yet.

In Ansley, a new greenhouse stands near the school, where its superintendent talks about all the ways his new agriculture teacher will utilize the facility to positively impact all of the building’s students.

“As an administrator, you’ve got to embrace all new ideas,” Goodman said. “Otherwise, you become stagnant.”

In all six Custer County schools, folks are dreaming bigger these days.

“The wide range of how people can develop and get excited about things is amazing,” said Fox.

That’s her favorite part of the job.

“Getting to learn about all of the new ideas that come out of each school, I love it,” she said. “Every year is different. We are growing and evolving, and it is evolving because we continue to have needs with our schools and businesses, not because I said we need to do it. It’s coming from my board members and our business leaders.”

What do all six school districts have in common?

“All of them want to see their kids be successful,” Fox said. “They want the best opportunities for their kids, and they are willing to work with those students to give them the best opportunities.”

Time has validated, over and over again, the importance of collaboration in education, especially in rural Nebraska. Nobody wants to live in a silo, Fox said, so she plans to continue to build that metaphorical bridge, breaking silos down as she goes.

“Our towns, and our schools, want this,” she said. “They want to grow.”

Why do you love Nebraska’s Public Schools?

“I grew up here. Before I was in 6th-grade, I was in seven different schools. I grew up in Nebraska. I graduated from and grew up more in Broken Bow than I did anywhere else and I just love the state. As I was growing up, I wanted to be a part of kids’ lives. I knew when I was in 9th-grade what I was going to do. I was going to be a teacher. I love the school system and think Nebraska does a great job educating their students. They give them as many opportunities as possible, and I’m all for that.” – Gordon Goodman, Superintendent at Ansley Public Schools

“It’s a reflection of every one of the schools I work with. They all put their students first. That is the reason I love Nebraska’s public schools. I love getting to know the culture in each school. That’s a lot of fun for me. Every school has that shining star, that positive energy they like to promote, and they should promote the heck out of it because they should be proud of what they do.” – Jenny Fox, Executive Director of Custer Capable