“Is high school too early to figure out what career path to follow?
The Olathe School District doesn’t think so.
When the new Olathe West High School opens for all students on Thursday, the district will have a total of 17 specialty academies in its five high schools.
For as long as most people can remember, the main mission of Johnson County schools has been preparing kids for college.
“I think we’ve done, for years, a really good job of helping kids be college-ready, but the career piece is something that kind of went in a different direction,” says Jay Novacek, principal of the new high school.
The Kansas State Department of Education wants to refocus districts so students are ready for college or a career when they graduate.
So Olathe West will offer courses for kids who are looking for a first-responder career.
“Not every kid has to go to college to be successful,” Novacek says. “There are a lot of awesome professions, public safety included, whether I’m a police officer or firefighter, an EMT person, that are going to give kids a great opportunities and a long career.”
Jeff Van Dyke, who was a Wichita cop for eight years, runs the public safety program and most recently taught middle-school physical education. He says there is a lot of practical experience students can get in the large space that houses the public safety program.
“We can use it for all kinds of real world-type learning situations such as setting up a crime scene, having the kids come in and process the crime scene in here,” Van Dyke says.
The Public Safety space is tucked into the side of the $82 million dollar building. Students pass a girder from the World Trade Center as they enter.
It’s a reminder, says Olathe Fire Chief Jeff DeGraffenreid, of the kind of people police and fire departments around here want to hire.
“A strong moral compass and a willingness to assist their fellow man is really what we’re looking at. Helping these students see the value of that, and hopefully someday we’ll be able to hire a great student from here,” he says.
An Olathe fire captain will teach the firefighting classes in the academy.
Olathe West is certainly not the first high school in the country to offer courses in public safety. But it’s one of the few that’s fully integrated with the rest of its academic courses, DeGraffenreid says.
Students, he says, will get a quality Olathe School District education and, after passing the state firefighting test, be ready to work.
“They’re great at math. They’re great at science. They’re great at writing. But they’re also fully prepared to work on a fire truck soon after graduation,” he says.
In addition to the public service academy at Olathe West, the district has also created a new, green technology academy at the school. It’s the 17th such academy the district has added since 2003.
Most of them, like the engineering or business academies, are geared toward college-bound students.
The crucial thing, says Deputy Superintendent Allison Banikowski, is finding the student’s passion and finding it early.
“And making sure, then, all the content and course work is geared toward that passion,” he says.
The Public Safety program is an acknowledgment, the district says, that it plays a significant role in getting kids ready to work in the community.”