Careers for the Future

Coordinator Andrea Thiner and principal Josh Haag are working with MHS faculty and leaders to develop plans for the district’s innovative Career Academy. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Construction crews begin gutting the old Sam’s Club building north of Interstate 94 on Aug. 1, getting it ready for a future the long-closed discount warehouse never dreamed of. A year from now – in August 2021 – its new mission begins … getting Moorhead High School students ready, too, for futures they may not yet envision.

Over the coming year, the Moorhead Area Career Academy – MACA – will take on a whole new look along with a ground-breaking mission to prepare young people for exciting, well-paid, in-demand careers that suit their aptitudes, interests and dreams.

Gone then will be any hint of the discount store’s corporate blue, fluorescent-lit aisles and coolers. In the months since Moorhead voters overwhelmingly approved a massive bond issue to renew, rebuild and refashion Moorhead High School, the Sam’s site has been quiet. With construction bids opened Thursday, the school board will trigger the starting gun, launching a race to build something altogether new in time for the 2020-2021 school year.

Until now, school leaders have concentrated on designing and redesigning the fresh take on career education that will be launched within its walls. The skeleton of that vision has been emerging over the past six months, changing and fleshing out as faculty and administrators have shared thoughts on how to take traditional vocational education far into the foreseeable future.

Now it’s time to build the spaces where every MHS student will spend time in coming years – where their visions of futures of endless and abundant possibilities will take shape and soar.

“You won’t see a lot of change here from the outside,” principal Josh Haag explains. “Inside, we are gutting it to the bare walls and rebuilding it to fit the program that’s coming together. When it opens 12 to 13 months from now, I guarantee you’ll never think ‘Sam’s Club’ again.” As principal of the new career academy as well as alternative education, he and coordinator Andrea Thiner have been at work on a plan for the innovative facility. It will house both careers training and the Red River Alternative Learning Center, which now occupies the Vista Center (formerly Globe University) to the east.

Architect Brian Berg describes MACA as a unique take on high school education. His company, Zerr-Berg Architects, has been involved in several other schools, he says, but this is the first time the local vision has encompassed a single school spread out across separate sites, each custom-designed for the kinds of studies taking place under its roof. “This is unique, to my knowledge, within the region,” he says. “MHS will be one very large and growing school sharing that special Spud identity that ties the community together. But shuttling students between two distinctly different campuses will allow them to have smaller group identities, too, rather than being lost in a sea of 2,000 to 2,500 peers.”

The career academy accounts for about $17 million of the $110 million referendum passed 3-to-1 last November. The district purchased the former big box store in 2019 for $4.2 million, about half of its appraised value. Superintendent Brandon Lunak has estimated it would have cost “upwards of $20 million” to build from the ground up.

Flexibility is built into the DNA of the reimagined school building. The Alternative Learning Center’s day and evening classrooms for teaching core subjects will occupy the mezzanine level on the west end, accommodating the 100 to 125 students enrolled in the non-traditional, supportive program. Like students attending MHS proper, each will also spend time in vocational studies on the spacious main floor – in multi-purpose classrooms as well as labs dedicated to hands-on, up-front experience with literally dozens of career pathways to carry them into jobs in demand in today’s workforce.

The floor plan is being divided among dedicated, well-equipped labs for specific areas of study and bare-bones “flex labs” that can easily be adapted to serve changing classes and needs. It also includes typical classroom spaces, too, where concepts can be taught and discussed.

Six “academies” are spaced out around the main floor. One is alternative learning. The others each encompass multiple pathways leading to specific fields for students to explore:

• Farm to Table, including everything from agricultural management and natural resources to the culinary arts.

• Health and Human Potential – health careers, biotechnology, law enforcement and public safety, and education, from early childhood classes to careers in all kinds of classrooms.

• Entrepreneurship and Business – courses in marketing, accounting and business management.

• Information Technology and Design Thinking – computer coding, communications, digital tools (photography, video, graphic design), engineering and “design thinking,” an area that may include robotics, architectural design, 3-D modeling and prototyping.

• Manufacturing and Transit — automotive, diesel, engines, welding and construction management, along with topics like “introduction to railroads,” aerospace, truck driving and drones.

“By the time they graduate, everybody will have taken at least one course in the academy,” Haag says. “Some may spend the minimum amount of time here … others, a substantial portion of their days.

“We want the curriculum to be nimble and adaptive,” Thiner adds. “We’ll change it as we need to, as the job market evolves and we learn what works or doesn’t.” Their intent is to present a variety of possible career ladders within each broad area of interest. Some may enable them to go to work right after graduation or go on to two-year vocational studies. Others lead to four-year colleges and beyond. “We want to open their eyes to what’s out there,” she explains. “We don’t want them to focus on just one pathway, never knowing about the rest of the opportunities that are out there.”

Haag points out that the academy is intended to prevent them from being locked into one vision of a productive future. “They’ll be able to try different paths. They can go ahead and get a taste. Then, if that isn’t what they’re looking for, they can try something else.”

Meanwhile, they’ll be taking all the regular classes they need for graduation – math, science, history, English. “The career academy isn’t in competition with the traditional high school experience,” he says. “It’s all about building their skills while they figure out where they want to go and what they want to do.”

Most pathways, Thiner says, will “capstone out” with a chance to actually work out in the field – “to do,” she says, “not just learn about it.”

Apportioning students’ time between two buildings is a puzzle they’re already trying to solve. Class periods will probably be lengthened to allow for travel time. Shuttle buses will carry young people between the two campuses; the main exterior work at MACA involves making way to smooth the near-constant traffic flow, separating schoolbus arrivals and departures from parking areas for faculty and student vehicles. The academy’s capacity is expected to vary from 500 to 700 at given times of the day, taking pressure off expansion plans for the high school proper.

Haag and Thiner say many of the faculty members who have already been teaching in these areas are as excited as they are about what’s emerging here. “It’s not often in your career that you get an opportunity to do something all new like this,” Haag notes. “They’ll still be doing what they love – teaching – but seeing it in a whole new light.”

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