“What do you do with the eyeballs?” I asked, as dozens of them looked back at me from the plastic container. I was halfway though a student tour of AB Foods, a state-of-the-art processing plant and largest employer in Toppenish, when the potential for a partnership with Toppenish High School came to mind.
The tour guide had already shared that, aside from producing more than 200 million pounds of boxed beef annually, almost every part of the animal was utilized: hides for leather, meat and bone meal for organic fertilizers, dried blood for fish food, and tallow for bio-fuel production, to name a few.
An hour later, an informal conversation with CEO Brad McDowell secured a commitment to support the high school with eyeballs, beef hearts, and occasional joints for the newly established biomedical program. McDowell appreciated the chance to help community students in a sustainable manner that didn’t include repeated fiscal donations.
Within a year, McDowell and many other business people were serving on advisory boards for many of Toppenish High’s STEM courses, which were cross-credited and designated “Career and Technical Education” (CTE) classes. Cross-crediting the STEM courses meant that each class could meet a graduation requirement in more than one area, affording students flexibility in scheduling and allowing them to take more electives. Student enrollment numbers have continued to increase, and more than 20 district staff members completed their CTE certification just this year.
These certifications provide participating teachers with additional credentials and ensures the district receives supplementary state funding that will continue to support these hands-on courses for years to come. Engaging the business community has become a continued focus of district and building leadership, and partnerships have continued to expand.
Three years from the time of that first tour of AB Foods, the high school now boasts more than a dozen biomedical and engineering classes, the middle school has an extensive slate of STEM/CTE offerings, and the four elementary schools will implement full-scale STEM programs in the first though fifth grades this fall.
Teachers now think creatively about using STEM to meet standards and share subject matter. At the high school, the Spanish department intentionally developed a course on medical terminology which meets second-year language requirements, and the English staff is poised to offer a technical writing class to complement the nationally-certified engineering program. A simple question on a student tour led to more than one school/business partnership. Consequently, course offerings expanded, staff considered new ways of teaching, and the doors of opportunity were opened for hundreds of students.
As for me, I learned that opportunities are everywhere — even in a beef processing facility. You just have to keep your eyes open.
Trevor Greene served as principal at Toppenish High School from 2008 to 2013 and was named National High School Principal of the Year during his last year there. He currently works at the Association of Washington School Principals but will become executive director of instructional leadership in the Highline School District on July 1.