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ConnectVA Spotlight: Holly Peele, Northstar Career Academy

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Tell us about yourself.

My name is Holly Peele, and I serve as the Director of Northstar Career Academy. This year will be my sixteenth year working as an educator; I have worked in private schools for students with special needs for thirteen years.

What is the focus of your work?

I have the privilege of working with young people who have many gifts and skills to share. However, all too often they have limited opportunities to share them because of their differences. At Northstar Career Academy, we are providing vocational training to young people with disabilities so that they can transition to the adult world with the skills that they need to both find a job and to grow within their career of choice.

Young people with disabilities face daunting barriers to employment; two-thirds of this group are unemployed. Northstar is working in the business community to build a network of prospective employers who have the skills and knowledge they need to employ and manage a diverse workforce. By completing coursework on campus and practicing skills with our business partners in the community, Northstar students build the professional skills that they need to navigate this complex world of work.

ABOVE: Northstar Career Academy partners with local businesses to offer their students hands on opportunities to practice employment skills

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

Being at Northstar allows me to work with students over time. Seeing students rise to the challenges before them and demonstrate significant growth is both incredibly rewarding and inspiring. I am also very grateful that our community-building approach and small class sizes afford me the opportunity to get to know our students’ families and to work with them closely on this journey.

What are some major challenges you have faced and how you handled them? 

Our students learn best in context with relevant real-world, hands-on instruction. However, young people with disabilities often do not have the “First Employment Experiences” that could have provided this kind of learning opportunity and served as stepping stones to meaningful employment with a living wage. A cornerstone of our work rests on our relationships with community partners.

Our students spend at least one day per week in the community practicing their skills in area businesses. Building these partnerships has been both a challenging and rewarding journey. Our partners have opened their doors to our students with warmth and hospitality. We provide sensitivity training to interested partners so that they know methods of teaching and managing our students while on the job. This has allowed our students’ experiences on site to grow in quality over time. In turn, our students complete these community-based experiences with references they can use when they begin applying for jobs.

What’s coming next for your organization that really excites you?

As the Career Academy enters its third year, we are excited to celebrate our move to a dedicated building. During our first two years we implemented our program on the main campus of Northstar Academy’s K-12 school. While we remain deeply connected to the rest of our Northstar family, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to open a satellite campus equipped with classrooms dedicated to teaching our specific course offerings: Business Administration, Materials Handling, Veterinary Assisting, Health Occupations, Construction and Maintenance, and Hospitality.

Also, Northstar Career Academy welcomes students ages 16-22, many of whom have graduated from high school. Having a separate campus allows us to offer an educational environment with the needs of a more mature student in mind.

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The entryway to Northstar Career Academy’s brand new campus on Schrader Road

How are you leveraging ConnectVA to achieve your mission?

Northstar Career Academy cannot achieve its mission on its own. Tapping into existing networks like ConnectVA is a critical part of building alliances through which we will work to achieve our mission. One simple concrete example would be the funds we saved by equipping one of our classrooms with free furniture made available through the ConnectVA Item Exchange. In the longer term, we use ConnectVA as a source of information about the work of others in Central Virginia with whom we can collaborate to make a greater impact on our community.

Anything else you would like to share?

Thank you very much for this opportunity to share about Northstar Career Academy’s work. I would be very interested in networking with other ConnectVA members who are engaged in similar work. Please reach out to me if you would like to share and learn more. We are always looking for new ways of working with others.   My email is hpeele@northstaracademy.net.

 

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