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Northern Kentucky nonprofit helps teens navigate transition from high school to what comes next

More and more districts partnering with NaviGo
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Sep 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-04 08:26:35-04

LUDLOW, Ky. -- It’s a typical Friday at Ludlow Independent Schools, and Superintendent Mike Borchers has an atypical standing appointment.

For nearly an hour, the longtime educator will take a break from managing the school district to meet with a Ludlow High School student. Together, they’ll explore the question that plagues nearly every teenager: What do you want to be when you grow up?

It might sound like work a high school guidance counselor should be doing, but that level of one-on-one, individualized attention isn’t feasible in today’s schools, where the average counselor-to-student ratio is about 470 to 1.

Ludlow is one of a growing number of local school districts in Greater Cincinnati to partner with NaviGo College and Career Prep Services, Inc. to help bridge that gap. The Northern Kentucky-based nonprofit connects students with specially trained college- and career-readiness coaches, like Borchers, to help them navigate the transition from high school to what comes next.

The organization offers a variety of comprehensive, in-house, school and workforce, and outreach services, but its foundation is fairly simple, according to NaviGo president Tim Hanner.

“We place meaningful adults in the lives of kids,” he explained. “Our goal is to empower students for life beyond formative education.”

Improving college- and career-readiness is a priority in schools across the nation -- and it’s a tall order.

Hanner, of Lakeside Park, knows the challenges first-hand. He was a teacher and administrator for decades in the Kenton County School District, Kentucky’s fourth largest district. He launched NaviGo, with a handful of partners, after retiring as superintendent in 2011.

In Kentucky, where students’ college- and career-readiness has been measured for years as part of the state’s K-12 accountability system, the rate of high school graduates considered ready for college and careers has jumped from 34 percent in 2010 to about 67 percent in 2015.

The rate has nearly doubled in the past five years thanks to statewide efforts, but roughly one-third of the commonwealth’s graduates are still considered unprepared for life after high school.

That’s not just bad news for those students, who will likely have to spend extra time and money on remedial courses in college or additional training for a job, but it’s also a blow to the region, according to Hanner.

“We have workforce needs in our region going unfulfilled,” he said.

NaviGo aims to tackle both problems. The organization reaches students by helping to bring out their “interests, passions and talents,” Hanner said, while also working with local businesses and community partners to make a positive impact on workforce development.

NaviGo scholars participate in the program's kick-off event July 25. This year's enrollment in the program is set to top 200. Photo provided

One of its biggest programs is NaviGo Scholars, which is administered by the Northern Kentucky Education Council. As part of the program, local businesses, including flagship sponsors Toyota and Duke Energy, specify what they’re looking for before NaviGo staff recruits juniors and seniors to apply. The businesses select students to participate for the year and offer coaching, job shadowing, internships, scholarship opportunities and even possible part-time employment.

“The beauty of this program is that it offers students the opportunity to explore careers and really connect one-on-one with business professionals in their fields of interest,” said Polly Lusk Page, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Education Council. “It also brings relevance to what they’re learning in school. The ‘when will I ever use this in the real world’ questions are answered.”

University of Cincinnati sophomore Liea Mack was part of the first group of scholars during her junior and senior year at Withrow University High School in Hyde Park.

When she started the program, she was sure she wanted to be a chemical engineer. After getting an up-close look at the profession, though, she changed her mind.

“I found that while I like chemistry, it’s not really my passion,” she said. “I’m more of a people person than a lab person. It wouldn’t have been a good fit.”

Mack is studying marketing at UC and hopes to go into public relations. She said the NaviGo Scholars program and career coaching she received helped get her on the right path.

“It was wonderful to have that one-on-one time with someone who helps you with every little piece of the puzzle,” she said. “Just the application process can be overwhelming, especially for a first-generation college student.”

During its first year, the NaviGo Scholars program had 32 students participate. This year’s enrollment will top 200. More businesses are also getting involved, Hanner said, because they see it as an investment in their future workforce.

Thomas More College recently announced it would offer up to half-off tuition for students who graduate from the program.

“We only see it growing and expanding,” Hanner said of the scholars program. “We have an incredibly diverse group of students from schools across the region.”

New this year is the organization’s student board of directors that will be an extension of its existing board. The students will serve as advisers, but will also help with things like event planning, IT and social media.

“Everything we do is real-world,” Hanner said. “There have been a lot of efforts locally to make learning come alive for students, and what we’re doing ties in really well with that.”

For local school districts, the scholars and coaching programs are an invaluable resource that complements additional college- and career-readiness efforts, according to Borchers.

“Our job is not just about helping our kids be successful while they’re in school,” he said. “It’s also about preparing them for what’s ahead and helping them succeed when they leave here.”

NaviGo Scholars participate in the program's kick-off event on July 25. Photo provided

NaviGo’s approach to college and career coaching has been a missing piece of the puzzle, Page said.

“It was a gap in the pipeline,” she said. “The programs are helping our kids build relationships and explore career pathways. They’re learning about all the possibilities after high school and what it will take to get there.”