As the last few days of school wrapped up at Detroit Lakes (MN) High School, a few students and their instructor carefully installed panels on a large greenhouse outside. Next year’s agriculture classes will grow a variety of crops within it, some of which the culinary arts students will use to create their own salsa for sale in the community. In the wood shop, students added the final details to their semester projects, surrounded by student-built corn-hole sets and Adirondack chairs sold through Laker Productions, a student-run company. The hands-on opportunities continued throughout the school – and throughout the community.

DLHS offers one of the most robust work-based learning (WBL) programs in the region, providing unique opportunities for students during each of their four years. From internships and apprenticeships to job shadows and summer jobs, students are gaining valuable work experience and career exploration opportunities while still in high school. The WBL program is now part of the larger Academies of Detroit Lakes which enables students to choose one of five career pathways to explore through classes, labs, WBL experiences, industry certifications, and relationships with community partners and mentors. It’s a thriving program that graduates students who have a better idea of what they want to do for a career and any necessary further education.

Meet Vern Schnathorst, the WBL coordinator at DLHS.

During his 16 years as coordinator, Vern has played a key role in expanding the high school’s WBL program. He arranges and oversees opportunities for students in grades 9-12, including individualized internships for about 200 seniors every year. From coordinating guest speakers and setting up business partnerships to hosting a career expo for 50 businesses and 450 students, it’s all part of what makes WBL succeed at DLHS.

We sat down with Vern recently to talk about what a successful WBL program means for students.

Detroit Lakes High School students are connected with work-based learning as soon as they start high school. How do these experiences build upon one another and how do they benefit the students?

Vern Schnathorst: Freshmen all take a year-long seminar class with career exploration, interest inventories, and aptitude tests. For work-based learning, they attend a career fair. We don’t want them to get super focused yet, but rather look at a lot of careers and decide a general pathway, their academy.

Sophomores take an introductory pathway class within one of the five academies and explore careers in that area. Their work-based learning includes two industry-related field trips.

Juniors participate in a targeted job fair with businesses and complete a job shadow.

Finally, seniors take a 21st-century skills classes with personal finance and college and career readiness. Each of them completes a senior internship for their work-based learning.


Work-based learning is part of a bigger academy focus at DL, with students choosing one of five pathways. What does that mean for students and how does it help prepare them for life after high school?

VS: It’s about creating relevance in education and exposing students to opportunities to learn while they are still in high school.

Students can change their pathways at any time, but less than 10 percent do. When they leave here, about 80 percent are pursuing something in their pathway. Even if they don’t, it’s still helpful to explore a career or education in an area and find out if it’s something they like or not.

More students are pursuing two-year degrees. One student, for example, did an internship at an interior design company and is now going to get their degree. They were offered a full-time position after high school. Another student was offered a full-time job as an insurance agent and will be taking business classes too.

Between 20 and 30 students also earn their certified nursing assistant (CNA) certification each year, while in high school. They earn credit, count it as their senior internship, and have a job after graduation. Students can do something similar by earning their Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certification, their commercial driver’s license (CDL), or their Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credential for teaching preschool.

We’re not trying to turn them away from four-year schools. We’re trying to give them more options and how they can get there.

How do WBL experiences and the academy approach affect attendance and graduation rates?

VS: It’s reducing failures. The numbers get better every year. Some students would definitely struggle more without all of these hands-on opportunities. We really want DLHS to be a place where you get to do things and experience it for yourself. It helps concepts and lessons make sense when you are learning from professionals – like working on our simulation dummies with a former athletic director in a health science class or taking shop class with a carpenter. Thanks to WBLs, kids also learn how to act in a business setting, picking up on important qualities, behaviors, and traits.

“Golden Path provides students with sustainable opportunities that help them explore their career options. It’s a great fit for what we do at Detroit Lakes and adds a whole other layer of managing work-based learning and helping students and employers connect with one another.”
Vern Schnathorst, WBL coordinator at Detroit Lakes High School

DLHS has built strong relationships with area businesses. Why are these partnerships so important?

VS: Businesses and our partners have made WBL and our academies a credible process. They understand our program. They’ve heard the success stories of our students and value investing in them, knowing it will come back to them and the community. We’re building a better community as a whole, creating more skilled professionals in the trades, and helping everyone in the long run. Whenever I ask local businesses to help, it’s hard for them to say no. They want to help the kids.

DLHS is now partnering with Golden Path and will begin using Compass next fall to coordinate WBL experiences. How will Compass help your program?

VS: Golden Path provides students with sustainable opportunities that help them explore their career options. It’s a great fit for what we do at Detroit Lakes and adds a whole other layer of managing work-based learning and helping students and employers connect with one another.

Compass will organize our WBL process. I’ve been wanting a place to store all of our WBL knowledge and information. Compass will allow us to move away from the paperwork and handle most things online. It will give businesses a way to regularly focus on their offerings and keep them updated and fresh.

Some students already set up internships on their own and Compass will help even more students to do that. It will remove some things from my responsibility and give it to the students to help them be more self-directed and independent.

What advice do you have for a school just getting started with WBL?

VS: Start small. Find a business partner who is really excited and don’t try to do everything at once. Find kids who are also excited about the process. If your first experience is a success you can build on that and grow the program.

My predecessor started our program in 1996 with just a few businesses and five or six students. It was an apprenticeship program then. He was one of the first coordinators in the state of Minnesota and he knew to start small and do it well.

What is your favorite part of working with students and WBL?

VS: I love seeing kids find their passion and get excited about their future. I always ask kids, “Why do your feet hit the floor in the morning?” I want them to think about their purpose and their passion. What makes them excited to go to work?

I have a personal conversation with every student before they start their WBL experiences. We meet one-on-one to discuss what they want to do, who they are, and their expectations. I really value getting to talk to every student and see how they grow throughout the program.

Read more about work-based learning and the academies at DLHS.

Interested in offering your own WBL experiences through Compass? Contact Golden Path Solutions today.