When Maria Mujica and her career readiness colleagues first meet their students, the majority of the teens they work with in Momentum Learning schools have no idea what their future could look like. It’s part of the career readiness team’s mission to change that.
“The department opens their minds,” Mujica said. “They may find that pathway to use it as a future career.”
Momentum Learning’s Career Readiness and Technical Education team gained a significant boost for these efforts thanks to a $1 million Pathways to Justice Careers for Youth grant it secured from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Jackie Romero said her experience with the Pathways program has given her confidence and bolstered her communication and public speaking skills. The 21-year-old graduated from Momentum Learning’s 37ECB in June and is now a full-time student at San Diego City College. The mother of a 3-year-old daughter, she also works as a special education teacher assistant for Momentum Learning.
“Two years ago, if you would have told me I would be doing this, I would have said, ‘No.’ Now I see potential in myself,” Romero said. “This program has given me the resources. I want my daughter to see that I’m successful, that I’m powerful.”
Romero admits she was skeptical when Mujica came to her about the Pathways program. But Mujica’s faith in her and encouragement helped Romero envision herself as a probation officer or teacher.
Momentum Learning Program Specialist Marisol Rerucha took the lead on the Pathways grant, which was awarded in summer 2016. Programming began in January, and officially launched in April. The program’s three core elements are education; career awareness, exploration, and preparation; and individual growth.
The Pathways to Justice Careers for Youth program is geared toward students ages 16 to 21, giving them access to activities and experiences associated with criminal justice, emergency service, and military careers. Students in the one-year program get to know professionals from a variety of agencies — including the county Probation Department, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, and FBI — and receive mentoring, experience job shadows, and complete 80-hour internships. They learn how to network and to build relationships.
Much of the program is about exposure and exploration for these teens, said Work Readiness Assistant Bryan Glasrud.
“Hopefully, they get an idea of want they want to do and what they don’t want to do,” Glasrud expained.
After spending time with a fire department, Romero knew that the work was not for her. But she liked the Probation Department so much that she is going through the process of applying for a student worker position. Romero also spent time with the Border Patrol and FBI.
“I picked Probation because I was always interested in it,” Romero said.
Perla Bueno, 17, is another student who has embraced every moment of the program, which has opened the door wide for a career in a fire department. Bueno is enrolled in the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s Cadet Program and completed the intense one-week academy this summer. Bueno, who has a 2-year-old son, spends much of her time between school and the headquarters.
“I’ve always been interested in the fire department, and I always looked up to firefighters,” she said. “Having this opportunity made me want it more. I know more about the job. A lot of us don’t know the different opportunities out there.”
Work Readiness Assistant Rodney Van, who worked as a probation officer for 23 years, believes the Pathways program is crucial for the student population he supports, many of whom are struggling to find their way.
“This gives them that extra opportunity to stay in school, having other things they’re interested in,” Van said. “They have something that intrigues them specifically, that keeps them tied to the school setting.”
Van adds that his students need exposure to different careers, sharing the story of one student who, while shadowing immigration attorneys, met a paralegal for the first time and is now interested in learning more about a career as a paralegal.
“I’m glad we had the opportunity to go after the grant and provide these opportunities for students,” Van said. “This is more than just your traditional opportunity to go to high school, get a diploma, go to college, get a job. It’s understanding that there are other pathways.”
The San Diego County Office of Education's Momentum Learning schools serve school-age youth who are either wards of the court or have been referred by social services, probation, or a school district. Education is provided to incarcerated youth, pregnant minors, youth in foster care, expelled teens, chronically truant youth, students in drug treatment centers and group homes for neglected or abused children, and youth experiencing homelessness.