Anoka Technical College: High School Students Take Big STEP Toward Readiness for Technical College Programs

Member Spotlight

At the same time that Anoka Technical College in Anoka, Minnesota, celebrated its ten year partnership with the Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP), college leaders invested in a unique program that provides hope for people who are without a job and without the skills needed to get a job. With three consecutive semesters of record-breaking enrollments, the 42-year-old college has earned the reputation as being the right place for technical and career education for high school graduates and for people seeking new or different employment opportunities.

A decade ago, visionaries from the college, the business community, Minnesota's largest school district, and Anoka County embarked on a mission to establish a learning environment for applied learners in 11th and 12th grade. The result of their vision was the creation of the Anoka-Hennepin School District STEP initiative. Located on the campus of Anoka Technical College with a corridor connecting the two institutions, STEP is a place where high school students can explore hands-on technical classes, earn college credit at no cost, and fulfill high school graduation requirements. The partnership is an endeavor that aligns high school technical education courses with the academic programs at a technical college.

Since its inception, the faculty at Anoka Tech and STEP developed high-school curricula that prepare students for the rigor of technical college education and for work in manufacturing, health care and information technology industries. Today, the partnership serves as a national model that preserves technical education by producing highly skilled, highly trained individuals who play a vital role in a global economy. This past fall, over 900 high school students enrolled in courses at STEP and the college experienced a 14 percent increase in student full-year equivalents.

"The 10-year anniversary symbolizes a collaborative effort that combines complementary programmatic tools and educational strategies to provide advanced, technical education that responds to the needs of the community," said Anne Weyandt, president of Anoka Technical College. "As our state experiences significant changes in the work force, it is critical that colleges like Anoka Tech provide employers with a steady stream of skilled technicians in both current and emerging career areas. Our partnership with STEP allows us to build the career pathways needed to assure our employers that we are anticipating their employment needs and ensuring talented young people choose technical programs that lead to rewarding jobs."

A natural outgrowth of Anoka Tech's commitment to enhancing technical educational opportunities for high school students is its companion commitment to providing flexible and relevant technical educational options for adult learners. In early 2009, at the onset of staffing reductions and economy-based restructuring in local industries, Anoka Technical College announced its Next Step initiative. Next Step (Successful Transitions for Experienced Populations) is a fast, flexible and focused pathway for adults who suddenly find themselves without work or at risk of a change in their employment status.

The initiative is an innovative approach to delivering online and on-site technical education opportunities and support services. At Anoka Tech, prospective learners have the opportunity to begin college classes at various times throughout the semester, not just at the beginning of the semester. "Instead of turning learners away and telling learners they cannot take college courses until the start of the summer, spring or fall semester, we are telling them they can start working on their diploma, degree or certificate right away," said Weyandt.

Next Step also aligns college programs, schedules and services with the needs of dislocated workers and other people seeking career training. The college worked closely with the Anoka County Workforce Center to identify the academic programs that would give dislocated workers the real-life skills and competencies that would prepare them for high-demand jobs when the economy turns around. Examples of college programs adopting alternative start times include the Medical Assistant, Information Technology, Electronic Engineering Technology, Construction Electrician, Manufacturing and Automotive programs.

"There are hundreds of people being eliminated from positions they have held for 25 to 30 years; those positions are not likely to come back," said Jerry Vitzthum, director of Anoka County Job Training Center. "Anoka Tech has worked closely with the workforce center to provide educational relief to dislocated workers. They will be instrumental in getting people back into the workforce."

Next Step is more than just offering varied program start times; it is also about providing academic resources, financial aid and student services that support college success. "We want to make it as easy and painless as possible for people who are suffering in this time of economic distress to access and secure the education and training they need without having to navigate typical governmental and educational bureaucracies," said Weyandt.

One barrier the technical college had to remove was getting dislocated workers over the fear of taking the ACCUPLACER - a math, English and reading college-placement exam - and comfortable with going back to school. To ease the transition and alleviate anxiety, Anoka Tech is hosting weekly college information sessions. Coordinated by the admissions, financial aid and the student support services departments, the weekly information sessions provide important information on preparing for the ACCUPLACER exam, financial aid and paying for tuition and books, career options, the admissions process and on noncredit courses and certifications for professional development.

Once dislocated workers are enrolled in Anoka Tech and taking classes, the college has various systems in place to ensure success and help learners navigate challenging economic times. Learners have access to free career counseling and services, peer tutors, counseling, scholarships for full and part-time learners and crisis grants. The college even has its own student food shelf for learners who are having a difficult time providing food for themselves or for their families. "By partnering with our College Foundation, Student Senate and friends throughout the community, Anoka Tech meets the educational needs of all learners and removes significant financial barriers that frequently present obstacles to retaining adult learners," said Weyandt.

STEP and the Next Step are Anoka Tech's signature initiatives that demonstrate the faculty, staff, and community's commitment to providing innovative career and technical education that helps students and communities live and learn well.