Midland County ESA helps create path for students to follow their passion

Midland County ESA provides special education services and support for students in Midland County on behalf of our local school districts. We also support childcare and preschool providers across the region and coordinate all career and technical education (CTE) programs across Midland County,” says Superintendent John Searles.

These CTE programs connect academic learning with hands-on career development, technical skills, and work behavior knowledge that is designed to prepare youth with a broad range of employment, training services, and post-secondary options. These programs are offered under the guidance of certified instructors, counselors, and administrators. “Hundreds of kids get great experiences every year. Each program has academic skills, soft skills, technical skills – the biggest thing employers care about seems to be that soft skills are intentionally embedded in our programs,” shares Don Johnson, Career and Technical Education Coordinator for the Midland County ESA.
Midland’s programming is a “well kept secret”.
Students at all Midland County schools, normally made up of 11th and 12th graders, have the option to explore the following CTE programs: Agriscience, Educational Careers, Culinary Arts, Building Trades, Skilled Trades, Welding, Woodworking, Automotive Technology, Engineering Technology, Healthcare Technology, Chemical Processing Technology, Biomedical and Business. Many school districts have career and technical education programs where they recruit students to participate and then house the programs in one building.

Johnson shares that Midland’s programming is a “well kept secret” as they do not recruit students, but rather help them discover their passions and make a career out of it. “This is very much about overall experience. Any student in Midland County can participate and doesn’t have to be at their home school. We have a bussing consortium that will take the kids from their building to another if the program they want to take is not at their high school. We are not a ‘career center,’ but we are similar. We are just not all in the same place. Each high school has its own programs, and we make them accessible to all Midland County high school students,” continues Johnson. “Realistically, we are trying to create a system where students can explore careers and achieve goals. We want to give them experiences that will put them on a career path.”
 Student displays her thoughts after participating in The Reality Store.
Midland students are first introduced to CTE programs in 8th grade as they participate in a half-day event called The Reality Store. The Reality Store gives students a pretend salary, checkbook, and opportunity to live like an adult as they visit themed stations such as “housing” and “insurance.” Many students come out of the experience with a new appreciation of the expenses and obstacles that adults face every day. They repeat this event in 11th grade. Additionally, when students are in 8th grade, they participate in a program called Career Pathway Adventures. This exposes them to all pathways – little snippets to many different opportunities. This program was started post COVID and is relatively new to the schools.
10th graders get to attend a career fair with over 40 area employers. “GMCA and MyMichigan Health are some of the big ones at the career fair. Having them participate helps connect the dots for students wanting to take part in the CTE programs the next year,” says Johnson. “When kids are little, we always ask them what they want to be when they grow up. We don’t ask that here. We ask 'what excites you and why? What do you like to do in your free time?' Then, we match that to a career and show them how it relates to what is already important to them. That is what we all should be doing.” 10th graders are also taken to all schools in the area to learn about the different program options that will be available to them the following year.

Though not all students participate in CTE programs, they do participate in Ready Set Interview, a mock interview event teaching students what it is like to sit in front of a potential employer answering the tough questions put before them. All of these programs and experiences are designed to set students up for success and to teach them that there is no one way to a career. Johnson acknowledges that college is not the only option, and it is not for everyone. Skilled trades and technical programs help many students get a jump start on their post-secondary journey.
CTE team offers summer camps.
When class is not in session, the CTE team offers summer camps. “We’ve had over 1,000 kids go through these camps – 600 in the skilled trades camps. Farm to Fork, 10 to 12 skilled trades and medical programs are some of our camps. It’s really cool because we have many partners such as Davenport, GMCA, MyMichigan, Three Rivers. It makes a difference when industry members work with the kids. It gives them a real life experience with a real life feel,” Johnson adds.

To learn more about the Career and Technical Education Programming at Midland County ESA or to volunteer your time and talents, visit their website

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Read more articles by Carly Lillard.

Carly Lillard moved to the Great Lakes Bay Region in 2007 from Traverse City. Since that time, she’s graduated from Northwood University and worked in fund development and communications for a variety of non-profits including Shelterhouse and Holy Cross Services. Currently, Carly is working to complete her Master’s Degree from Michigan State University in Strategic Communication. When she’s not writing, you will find her spending time with her husband, Jesse, and two children, Maycie and Elias. Carly can be reached at carlylillard@gmail.com.