Building the school to career pipeline

By Jennifer Branch

Talent. It is the top need of employers across the country. Texas and Waco are no exceptions, especially with historically low unemployment rates.

As the “baby boomer” generation continues to age and exit the workforce, employers are becoming more and more desperate for adequately trained workers. The growth of a competitive economy and rapid advances in technology have changed the face of the job market and we as a community must answer.

The Heart of Texas P-20 Council is a school-to-work initiative that builds pathways from education to workplace to provide a skilled workforce. Our mission is to create collaborative partnerships that connect students to both college and career readiness. The council has historically had a strong presence of collaboration from educators, but the missing link remained – industry feedback.

My work with the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce has been incredible. I have the pleasure of sitting down face-to-face with local employers throughout McLennan County and learning more about their businesses and the dreams and passions that led them to their line of work. I am often invited to celebrate successes, but I am also challenged with partnering with businesses to overcome issues they are facing. Ninety-five percent of the time, the greatest challenge our local businesses face is recruiting and maintaining Talent and Workforce. They often face growth restraints due to the lack of qualified workers. Markets are hot, products and services are in demand, but businesses simply cannot accommodate all requests because they do not have capacity. If they had the qualified, trained employees they need, they could more closely meet the demands.

The feedback from my visits is aggregated and collectively shared with educators, curriculum planners and community leaders. Allowing the first-hand transfer of information about the specific skills and needs the employers are looking for has helped the P-20 Council’s overall local mission and commitment as well as supported the state’s 60×30 strategic plan for preparing students for the workforce. The newly launched Talent Portal and the ongoing, strategic relationship with the US Army’s Fort Hood Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program are other examples of workforce initiatives I focus on as well as continuing to support our local industry and community partners.

One thing that I have seen that is most encouraging and fascinates other economic developers is the collaborations within our community. Waco has brought to the table City and County officials, regional early-ed public and private schools, leaders from TSTC, Baylor University, McLennan Community College, Texas Tech University at Waco, Tarleton State University – Waco, Workforce Development Boards and other community and industry leaders, literally all focused on the same end goal.

While change certainly is underway in our community to develop a robust talent pipeline for employers and to give job seekers more and clearer options and career pathways, we must continue to collaborate and push for continued change. A healthy economy and job market lead to healthy communities, which lead to healthy businesses and healthy families. The bottom line is that there is no growth without talent. Partnerships that nurture, grow and diversify the talent pipeline are vital and partners in McLennan County should be proud of the work started.

Jennifer Branch serves as the Director of Existing Industries and Workforce Development on the Economic Development Team at the Greater Waco Chamber. She is also on the Workforce Development Board as the Co-Chair for the Texas Economic Development Council. She relocated from Dallas to Waco 10 years ago and is settled in China Spring with her two daughters. In her “free” time she enjoys all things outdoors, especially on the lake or one of the rivers flowing through our city center. Along with being an ambassador for our community, she is also an active advocate for many non-profits for which she has a passion.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.

Collaboration Chain: Continuing Education and Community Collaboration

By Kristi Pereira

I love collaborating. I love being in a room of colleagues and fellow community members, discussing projects and plans, and exploring ways in which we can work together to achieve a common goal. And I especially love this if that common goal is something that has the potential to create an improved quality of life in our beloved Waco. There is very little that is as satisfying to me professionally as when individuals come together to create something meaningful that benefits our community as a whole.

I have had the privilege of working for and with several non-profits within our community, and I now serve as the Coordinator of Community Programs in McLennan Community College’s Continuing Education Department. Over the past several years, I have enjoyed a great deal of partnering, networking, and you guessed it….collaborating. The projects and plans that I have witnessed come together the most successfully can be attributed to each person’s commitment to diligently working together in order to see the task through to the end. I am incredibly grateful to work in a position where I get to witness this very thing on nearly a daily basis. Our Continuing Education mission statement specifically states that we are “deeply committed to the advancement and enrichment of Waco and McLennan County through our collaborations to offer the best learning experiences possible.” We accomplish this in a number of ways, and like links in a chain, we cannot optimally function without every piece coming together.

It starts with our students. Our community has supported our mission to provide lifelong learning for more than 50 years! This long-term dedication has allowed our programs to grow and flourish, all while bringing people together from all walks of life to learn new skills and hobbies. From the children who attend Kids College, to the adults who prioritize lifelong learning, we would not exist without each student’s desire to expand their knowledge through our courses.

Furthermore, we would not function without our incredible team of instructors. Our instructors plan, prepare, and execute courses that meet a wide variety of needs within our community. They come to us excited to share their knowledge and experiences, and we are grateful for their influence. Even during my short time at MCC, I have heard stories of individuals gaining skills that helped them land their dream job, or others turning what was initially a hobby into a thriving career.

Another important link in the collaboration chain are our community partners. In recent years we have established partnerships with a number of local businesses and organization who have helped us expand and promote our course offerings. These partners have opened the doors of their businesses to help us reach an even broader audience, as well as provide new and unique learning opportunities to members of the Waco community.

I am proud to work for an institution that encourages partnership, and also to live in a city that embraces interconnection. We like to say in the Continuing Education Department that “Life is Good in Waco” (we print this very phrase on all of our publications!) And it is true! And life will continue to be good in Waco every time we choose to link together, creating an unbreakable chain of community collaboration.

Here’s the link to see what MCC Continuing Education has to offer:

Kristi Pereira is the Coordinator of Community Programs at McLennan Community College, through the Continuing Education Department. Originally from the Pineywoods of East Texas, she has called Waco home for almost 12 years. Kristi enjoys all things fitness and nutrition, reading, volunteering, and a good cup of coffee. She has been married to her husband Hermann, for almost 15 years, and they have two kids, Hudson and Ruby. 

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.

Pedal car partnership provides authentic, real world learning (and pay!) for high school students

By Clay Springer

Last May, three local entrepreneurs came to me with a challenge.  They had purchased a 14- passenger bicycle car six months earlier and launched “Waco Pedal Tours” (WPT), a startup providing entertainment tours in Waco’s downtown.

Cory Dickman, Jake Cockerill, and Danny Abarca are true entrepreneurs, ready to bet it all in the belief that their product, a pedal car, could play a vital role in shaping the downtown experience for locals and guests alike. But, by the time they came to me, they were emotionally drained.  It turns out the pedal car they had purchased was a hodge-podge of mis-matched imperial and metric parts that the previous owners had thrown together with a working philosophy of “get the next tour finished and worry about the rest later.”

Keeping this Frankenstein pedal car running was a nightmare. They had spent countless hours doing cross-country searches and talking to engineers and designers and still they had no solid replacement parts.  I signed on to help with the project, and we spent additional countless hours researching, brainstorming, designing, and working with the best old-school machinist in Waco until we finally had the pedal car back on the road.

Even after my involvement with WPT, however, problems with the old pedal car were a constant problem: holes in watered batteries, cracked brake drums, split axle shafts, electrical shorts, etc. The original pedal car was built in China and then shipped to America for final assembly. Most problems related to a metric or Chinese version of something not being compatible with what was readily available for purchase in Waco, Texas.

We realized it was time to build from the ground up. We wanted a frame that could be repaired with parts from local stores or junkyards in 24 hours or less. We wanted a better suspension for a more comfortable ride on bumpy roads. We spent hours scheming possible new additions to the bike: water misters for hot days, on board hot chocolate tap for winter, karaoke, massive sound system, air-ride suspension for comfort, Mario Kart (a personal favorite and I still remain the 9-time undefeated champ at the annual RAPS Mario Kart races!), and so much more.

We had lots of ideas for improvement based on customer comments… added space between pedals and bar for folks with long legs, a space to lock up personal items or coolers, a step with a handle for loading and unloading, and an extra seat or two. We wanted a technical service manual and a troubleshooting guide.

Of course, all of this conversation about new features and improvements led to some dreaming about scaling the product up into multiple pedal cars and serving as a vendor for other entertainment startups.

Cory, Jake and Danny knew we could build a better pedal car, but the crossroads of time and money spent to get the original bike on the road again had taken its toll. As we dreamed up design ideas and worked through trade-offs we kept up a running cost analysis on building a new pedal car.  How could they afford it?  Who would build it?

The pedal car project fascinated me. I was drawn to the problem-solving challenge of working on a vehicle that seems simple from the curb but is oddly sophisticated below.  I began to wonder if this was a job that my students at Rapoport Academy Public School (RAPS) could do.

For over a decade the RAPS robotics team has competed every year in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). This competition focuses on technical skills like DC electronics, CAD, CAM, CNC machining, pneumatics, LEDs, fasteners, gears and pulleys. One problem we have always faced while competing in FRC is the time commitment. Our students have to balance their time between wage earning jobs and after school activities like robotics.

Just like that, the idea was born: bring students on at WPT as full W-4 employees! The students could earn OSHA certification and be covered under workers comp insurance. This would help students balance having a job to earn an hourly income and earning class credit. Unlike in a regular robotics project, in this build we wouldn’t have to fundraise the cost of the materials, so we could spend more time teaching fabrication techniques and safety.

We formed a team – four RAPS high school students, three partners from WPT, and one teacher (me!)  – we were in it not just to build a product, but to build a company.

It is almost impossible to list all the good outcomes and highlight moments that have come from this project: The close personal interactions between the students and owners; the opportunity to learn project management, marketing, finances / loan structure; the opportunity to connect STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) learning from the classroom to real experience in the field. Students were pressed to quickly learn how to read, interpret and fabricate blueprint drafts. They learned how to communicate within a team to get a project up and running.

The brightest highlight by far has been the four high school students themselves. Each student brought a unique skill set and personality to the team. I have known these students since they were in the 5th and 6th grades and it was an incredible experience to go from being a teacher in front of a class to working alongside them on a daily basis. We worked through conflict together.  We got in trouble with management for playing music too loud together. We spent time talking about cars, college, and life… but most of all we learned together.

In the beginning this project was about welding some tubes together, throwing axles and brakes under it, adding a little paint, installing a stereo, and sending a pedal car down the road. It soon transformed into a project about high school students developing the skills to be successful in college, career, and life.

Yes, you have to know how to align gears, and calculate weight-to-gear ratios to build a pedal car, but those are skills we can teach in a classroom. You cannot teach the rush you feel when you meet a high-stakes deadline, or the satisfaction that comes with successfully managing a project that relies on three different people with six different parts progressing at once, or the attention required to improve a design by listening to customers. You have to experience these things. I have learned many, many things through this work-based learning partnership, but one of the most impactful things I will take from it is, “You cannot simulate authentic real-world learning.”

After two weeks of rigorous testing over spring break we will fix and fine tune any problems that arise with the new pedal car. Then we will bring on another set of talented students to help write the technical guides that will accompany the pedal car, to use RAPS drones and cameras to video and photograph the pedal car for marketing packages and social media posts, and to serve as drivers for tours.

This new pedal car is a prototype, created from our imagination.  It is full of imperfections with improvements to be made, but I guarantee you this: our RAPS team is up for the challenge and we are just getting started. So, go take a ride on the new pedal car, your dollars will support local education and you might just have one of the builders from our team as your driver!

Waco Pedal Tours and Rapoport Academy Public School entered into a formal partnership to promote Entrepreneurship and STEAM education together. From trade and technical disciplines to entrepreneurial finance and marketing, local companies like Waco Pedal Tours are the key to the success of our next generation.  I applaud WPT for taking a risk on a couple of knuckleheads with power tools (me included). 

Rapoport Academy focuses on entrepreneurship in STEAM disciplines. We are looking to partner with more companies to meet the interests of every student. I would personally love to connect you with some amazing young talent to help grow your idea or established business.

How could your business and our students mutually benefit from the tools, training and facilities that RAPS has to offer? How can we create some authentic student learning experiences together? There is a little something for every passion in entrepreneurship and it takes every person pedaling for the bike to move forward.

Clay Springer currently serves as STEAM and Career and Technical Education Director for Rapoport Academy Public School. Clay started his educational career at Rapoport Academy in 2010 as a teaching assistant for Quinn Middle school before becoming a classroom teacher and advocate for STEM and Authentic education. Clay and his wife, Joi, welcomed their first child, Shepherd, on Thanksgiving day 2018. They enjoy spending time on the Brazos River on old boats that Clay boldly claims someday will be as good as new.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.orgfor more information.

Helping students figure out a future that fits

By Elizabeth Brownlee

Figuring out what you want to do with your life is difficult for a 30-year-old adult, so you can imagine teenagers have a tough time with it.

House Bill 5, passed in 2013, increased the pressure for our students to plan for their future careers at an earlier age.  All ninth graders are now required to select one of the following endorsements:

  • Arts and Humanities Endorsement 
  • Business and Industry Endorsement 
  • Multidisciplinary Endorsement 
  • Public Service Endorsement 
  • STEM Endorsement 

An “endorsement” is a series of courses that are grouped together to support a particular career path. To implement this requirement successfully, schools have had to expand career exploration opportunities for students, and also start the career exploration process sooner.

At Connally ISD, one of the major ways we help our students find their future career path is through the Connally Career Tech Early College High School.  Our campus is completely focused on students working towards their chosen future careers.  We help them get started on their career path and get experience in their chosen fields before they graduate.  As the counselor of Connally Career Tech I spend a lot of time with students trying to help them create plans not only for high school, but for their futures once they graduate. It may seem unrealistic to ask a fifteen-year-olds to plan out their future career paths and expect them to stick to it, and maybe it is, but getting them to start thinking and talking about a path is important.

For me helping a student choose a career path is all about building a relationship.  I know in education we constantly talk about test scores and grades, but when it comes to being a counselor, you have to build relationships with your students.  Getting to know my students and their interests helps me guide them along their career exploration path. I am constantly trying to get to know my students.  I try to see them in their element, whether it’s while they’re in study hall, in the classroom, or just talking to their friends. I talk to parents about their student’s interests.  Parents have insights into their student’s likes and dislikes that I may not see. 

My relationship with a student is my most important tool for helping them.  I need to know what’s important to them.  Without the relationship, I wouldn’t be able to have those important, hard, honest conversations when their goals and their interests don’t seem to match.

Sometimes a student will want to study for a particular career path because an older sibling really likes it, when in reality he/she has no interest in that career.  He/she is just unsure of what to do in the future.   I never try to force a student in a certain direction. I give them an idea and tools to help them research it to see if it’s something they are truly interested in pursuing. If possible, I have them speak with someone in the field or someone teaching in that field. 

I find a lot of students want to go into a career field because that’s all they’ve been exposed to growing up.  We’ve all heard of doctors, lawyers, police officers, teachers, and similar careers.  We see them all the time and they are all great career choices, but they don’t fit all students.  

Each year when we have our College and Career Fair or our Recruitment Night for Connally Career Tech, I bring my students to speak to specific tables or programs that I know fit with what they want to do in the future.  By encouraging a student talk to someone from a field they don’t automatically think about, I help them get exposure to new choices.  While I want them to go and talk to every program or table that interests them, I want to make sure I help them see what they wouldn’t normally choose.

We also try to take our students on field trips that cover multiple career fields.  This helps expose our students to different careers they may not think of right away. It is my goal to help my students find out about the lesser known, sometimes behind the scenes careers they don’t always know about.  Many times I get to go with them and observe their reactions. This helps me guide them in their career choices. Students will come back from a field trip and begin to have conversations about what they saw, what they liked or didn’t like.  Then we start moving forward with career planning based on what they tell me.

My students and I spend a lot of time talking about their career goals for the future and how their high school choices are helping them get to that career. Sometimes a student settles on a career choice, but then they get to experience a little bit of it.  They may come and tell me that it’s not what they thought, or they didn’t realize everything that went into that career and they want to change.  That is probably one of the best parts of our program. Students get to experience at least a little of what a particular career is like before they graduate from high school. They don’t have to wait until after high school and waste money and time working towards a career that they end up not enjoying. I want them to be able to make well informed decisions about their future career.  For many students, the experiences we provide help them do that.  I’ve seen too many students graduate from high school unsure of their future. I make it one of my goals to help my students have a plan or a vision for their career path before they graduate.  

Elizabeth Brownlee is in her 4th year as the Connally Career Tech Early College High School Counselor and her 10th year in education.  She has been married for just under a year.  She and her husband have two pit bulls and chihuahua.  In her free time, she enjoys crafting, running, and anything outdoors.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.