The Pathfinders: Plattsmouth students flourish in nationally-recognized career academies

The Pathfinders: Plattsmouth students flourish in nationally-recognized career academies

By Tyler Dahlgren

High school’s a journey. 

What if, at the onset, you could take a sneak peek at the culmination? Can you imagine? Bright-eyed freshmen getting a glimpse at their senior selves, all set to embark on an even longer journey called life.

The question makes Carter Moss shake his head and even chuckle a little bit.

“I would’ve been shocked,” said the Plattsmouth senior. “If I could go back and tell freshman Carter that he’d be doing biomedical research in a hospital lab, he’d have never believed me. Not in a million years.”

And yet, that’s what Plattsmouth’s Wall to Wall Career Academies have done. Innovative, nationally-recognized and game-changing, their three academies have given students a preemptive glimpse down the road by opening the doors to opportunity and inviting them to walk right in and explore. 

By vesting in student interests, the district has invested, very remarkably so, in student futures. 

“We like to say that this model makes learning relevant for our kids,” said PHS principal Todd Halvorsen. “They aren’t all in a one learning-type situation. They have career pathways that they follow, and it’s geared towards where they want to be at the end of their high school careers.”

(Courtesy Photo)

Within Plattsmouth’s three academies, ATEAM, BEACH and STEAM, live millions of possibilities, all constructed alongside curriculum crafted by a team of educators that find no accomplishment more rewarding than leading a student to a meaningful career they’re passionate about.

“That’s why we do it,” said assistant principal and academy facilitator Christina Harvey. “When you go into education, you want to see students succeed. You want to see them thrive. Our academies have given them the opportunity to find specific strengths they have and then really expound on those. It’s so rewarding.”

Every student at Plattsmouth is on a pathway. On their own journey, you could say. But they’re not alone. Since its inception, this has been bigger than one school district. It’s about the community surrounding it and the people of Plattsmouth who want to see this town, and its youth, do well. 

Conveniently, those two are far from mutually exclusive.

“With our business advisory team, the goal is to find out what the community needs are and to try and prepare the students to come back into our community,” said Halvorsen. “We also know that within the metro area there are lots of opportunities for employment in these areas as well. Our top priority is to give students an education that’s going to fit their needs and wants. We want to make that learning piece relevant.”

And oh, have they ever. Wednesday night, Plattsmouth High School welcomed the community inside its dazzling Career and Technical Education (CTE) Building. The open house drew plenty of oohs and ahhs (you really need to see the facility to believe it) and gave Plattsmouth students a chance to show off one of Nebraska’s public school gems.

“It feels like you have a hand-tailored experience and that you can really make your education yours here,” said Moss, who’s currently taking classes at UNMC. 

Tim Hughes, a business-minded senior in the BEACH academy, concurred.

“When your education is yours, it not only helps you blossom into a better student, but a better person,” said Hughes. “If you’re passionate about what you’re learning, it makes it so much fun.”

Hughes wants to be his own boss someday, and he’s well on his way to making that happen. Last Friday, he qualified for nationals at the DECA State Career Development Conference. DECA is one of several student organizations that line up with Plattsmouth’s three academies. Just another door to walk through.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do coming into high school, but taking classes I thought would be fun led me to culinary arts and really helped me understand what I wanted to do for a future career,” said junior Malie Todd, who competed in the National ProStart Invitational for restaurant management last year and is currently preparing for FCCLA’s upcoming statewide competition.

Students weave a wide web in their time at Plattsmouth High. Real internships are on the upswing.

“It’s really easy to get super involved in a bunch of different things,” said senior Matthew Zitech, who gets hands-on architecture and construction experience in his ATEAM academy. “That just boosts your communication and time management skills, too. I came into high school really shy and timid, just a quiet kid in general, and this has allowed me to open up and grow into someone who’s comfortable in those areas.”

Since shifting to the career academy model, the climate at PHS has only been enriched. Students are closer with staff. The school is closer to its community. Students are closer to the rest of their lives.

“The instructors and teachers here, the education they’re giving us is very valuable, not only related to our specific career paths, whether that’s my business teacher or Matthew’s shop teacher, but even our home advisory teachers,” said Hughes. “It seems like they genuinely care about what we’re doing down the road and how we’re going to get there. They make sure we stay on the correct path to get to our future.”

Zitech’s shop teacher, for example, comes from a farming background, just like him. The two have seen eye-to-eye since the start, and that helped to pique Zitech’s interest in agribusiness. 

“We’re in an environment where our teachers are constantly wanting to help, and it really just enriches our educational experience,” Zitech said.

Todd, meanwhile, is one of the drivers behind a new bistro set up and operated by students (in their state-of-the-art new culinary center) for staff. The money they make serving teachers grub goes directly towards competition funds.

“It’s also given us a good look at what the industry is actually like, because catering events are very chaotic and we’re doing something very similar on a daily basis,” Todd said. “It’s very rewarding seeing people enjoy the food and the creativity that we get to have.”

Hearing that fills Halvorsen and Harvey with pride. After all, that’s been the goal all along.

“As a principal, one thing you want for your students is for their high school experience to feel really relevant to them,” said Halvorsen. “You want to feel like they enjoyed being here. To hear them talk about the respect they have for their teachers and advisors, the people you bring on board to lead your students, it makes me feel really blessed as a principal. It’s why we have these academies. Building relationships is what it’s all about.”

It seems like everyday Harvey sees something amazing. Something you wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a high school student. But these aren’t ordinary high school students. This isn’t an ordinary high school experience.

“For example, Matthew (Zitech) made this awesome fire pit table that is really high end,” Harvey said. “I would never expect to go into Menards and find anything this nice. When he brought that in, that was amazing. It was surreal. One of our students made that. He’s talented, absolutely, and he gained skills along his pathway here that helped him complete something like that. It’s so cool.”

Things move fast inside Plattsmouth’s CTE Building. It can get a visitor’s head spinning. But these aren’t newbies. These are Plattsmouth Blue Devils, and this is their pace.

“It’s the standard,” said Zitech. “For us seniors, we don’t really know any other way. We feel like it’s the best way to learn and the only way to learn.”

Memories made, well, they pile up even faster. The dodgeball game on Academy Kickoff Day, all the different projects and competitions and that one time the students printed over 200 t-shirts for Homecoming come to mind. Moss thinks back to the daunting application process to get into UNMC, when, totally unprovoked, the entire English department gave his application essay a once-over and recommendations came flooding in from the biology department and beyond.

“The amount of support that I’ve received during this process has been my favorite memory,” Moss said.

He’ll never forget that. They’ll never forget this.

“It’s like Mr. Halvorsen said,” said Hughes, “not only are we set up for a good future, but when we’re in that good future we can look back and say ‘I enjoyed that, and my high school set me up for my future success.’”

There’s a roundabout on 8th Ave, just to the north of Plattsmouth High School. 

It’s not the only way out, but it’ll take you to wherever you need to go. 

Fitting, right?

“Stay open-minded and try something new,” Zitech would tell future PHS students. “Because it’s going to take you further than you could ever imagine.”