Bridge to Success: Pathway Coordinators Connect K-12 Career Programs to Community Colleges Feature Story

January 30, 2021
oc pathway coordinators

It is one thing to create career education programs that give students the skills they need to fill the region’s most in-demand jobs and quite another to connect those programs to the K-12 students who need them most. But this is exactly what Orange County’s four new pathway coordinators will do.

Funded by the regional Strong Workforce Program K-12 grant, these coordinators will have the mission of building and strengthening educational pathways from career and regional occupational programs (ROP) at the K-12 level to Orange County’s community colleges. This role will include such responsibilities as working with Orange County’s regional directors of employer engagement, the Center of Excellence, and regional businesses to assess workforce needs; developing new K-12 career education pathways, articulation agreements, and dual enrollment programs; and streamlining current pathways. Significantly, they will also provide a key touchpoint as liaisons between their home districts and Orange County’s four community college districts.

“In many ways, this funding helps connect our Strong Workforce Program work at the community college level with our K-12 partners and the students interested in career-education-related pathways,” says Dr. Gustavo Chamorro, regional director of the Orange County Strong Workforce Program. “I am excited to have a group of professionals who will be collaborating around strengthening career education pathways in our region with the purpose of ultimately benefiting the students we serve.”

Not surprisingly, the four new coordinators have a lot in common. They all started their educational journeys at a community college, they all have extensive professional and educational experience, and they all believe in the power of career education to transform lives. Keep reading to learn more about them, their current projects, and their hopes for the future of regional career education.

David Foster, DC, MEd, DACBSP, CSCS

K-12 Pathway Coordinator, Orange County Department of Education

David Foster believes in education—but that wasn’t always the case.

“I’m actually a sports chiropractor and got into teaching about 20 years ago as a way to give back to the community,” says Foster. “I actually owe my success in sports medicine to a CTE class I took in high school. Before I took that class, I wasn’t a very good student—a C- was the perfect grade for me because it meant I’d maximized my time in the gym and minimized my time in class. But that class, which was about how to become a personal trainer, connected academics to my passions and helped me understand why education was important. I suddenly understood that my English class wasn’t about studying dead authors but about learning how to write so I could put a business plan together and get a loan to open up my dream business.”

This realization led Foster to restart his educational journey at Pasadena City College and follow it all the way to the Southern California University of Health Sciences (SCUHS) where he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic. Along the way, while building several successful chiropractic practices, Foster started teaching a sports medicine class at a local high school. The class was so popular that it eventually grew to six classes on five different high school campuses.

Fifteen years later, Foster had the opportunity to take his passions for education and sports medicine to the next level as executive director of sports medicine, fitness, and human performance for SCUHS, where he was in charge of building specialty pathways for doctoral students in sports medicine. As much as he loved this work, Foster is especially excited to continue it on a larger scale.

“Instead of being at a university with 1,000 students seeking specialty training,” says Foster, “I’m working on multiple pathways from high school to community college and beyond that have the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of students now and into the future.”

As a pathway coordinator, Foster will be working with Santa Ana and Santiago Canyon Colleges, the Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and Orange Unified School Districts, and the

Orange County Department of Education.

“I look back at my high school experience and realize I just didn’t get it,” continues Foster. “But all it took was that one class. That’s my passion right now. Helping students get on a path that inspires them and helps them live the life they want to live.”

Kenia Cueto, Ph.D.

Business Partnership Manager & K-12 Pathway Coordinator, North Orange County Regional Occupational Program (NOCROP)

Kenia Cueto is a first-generation Latinx whose parents are from Mexico, the second person in her family to finish college, the first one to earn a master’s, and the first one to earn a Ph.D. As if that weren’t enough, she is also a former child actress and star of Villa Alegre, the first national bilingual children’s television show in the U.S.

“Education has been on my mind since I was a child,” recalls Cueto. “The producer of the show I worked on had his Ph.D. and he always reminded me that education was very important and I never forgot that.”

Later, Cueto earned an ROP certificate that allowed her to work as a medical assistant when she wasn’t acting. Motivated by a desire to serve her community, Cueto later returned to college at age 28 to pursue her dream of working in education. Her Ph.D. studies at Chapman University included research into community partnerships, which continues to be a key focus of her work today at NOCROP where she is a key point of contact for five school districts, 25 high schools, and nearly 18,000 students.

“When you build a partnership, it’s reciprocal,” says Cueto, who served as NOCROP’s business partnerships manager for three years before adding “pathway coordinator” to her title. “Partnerships shouldn’t be transactional—they should be transformational. That’s how I’ve always worked and that’s why I love my new role—I get to help connect all the dots between businesses, K-12 schools, community colleges, and most importantly, students.”

In her role as pathway coordinator, Cueto serves Cypress and Fullerton Colleges, as well as

North Orange County ROP, which supports the Anaheim, Brea Olinda, Fullerton Joint, Los Alamitos, and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School Districts.

Despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cueto is optimistic about the future.

“It’s more important than ever that we help students find pathways that lead to security and success and bringing awareness to those programs,” says Cueto. “I take that responsibility very seriously. I’m a big believer that community college can transform the life of a student, especially during these difficult times.”

Krista Ganga, Ed.D., ATC

K-12 Pathway Coordinator, Coastline ROP

Krista Ganga was so excited to start a career in fitness, she took her very first class at Golden West College in athletic training when she was a senior in high school. She then proceeded to take classes at almost every Orange County community college in a quest to finish her general education requirements as quickly as possible.

Today, she’s a graduate of not only Orange Coast College but also Cal State Long Beach, where she earned a bachelor’s in athletic training and a master’s in sports medicine and injury studies, and Concordia University, where she earned her Ph.D. in education.

A certified athletic trainer by trade, Ganga began teaching sports medicine courses 14 years ago for two different Orange County regional occupational programs (ROPs). That work led to her being hired as an instructional support specialist at Coastline ROP, where she not only managed the new teacher orientation program but also played a key role in course creation, pathway mapping, grant management, and more. As a pathway coordinator, she will apply that knowledge and expertise to improving partnerships between Orange Coast, Golden West, and Coastline Colleges and the Irvine, Huntington Beach, Newport Mesa, Tustin, and

Saddleback Valley Unified School Districts.

Like the other pathway coordinators, Ganga has only been in her role since May of last year. Still, she is already working hard overcoming the challenges created by the pandemic. Specifically, the pandemic has made placing students in internships particularly difficult because of social distancing restrictions and the move to telecommuting.

As a solution, Ganga has helped develop new profession-based learning programs that allow students to engage with employers at a distance.

“Like an internship, it’s an experience-based learning solution that allows students to get hands-on experience with a particular field,” says Ganga. “On a basic level, it gives students the chance to get to know a workplace, industry, and occupation through case studies and real-life, problem-solving situations and interactions with company contacts.”

As part of this solution, Ganga has also connected with two innovative, digital services: CoLabL’s Talent Accelerator program, an online platform that pairs an organization’s employees with students as short-term career coaches; and NEPRIS, which connects educators and learners with a network of industry professionals to bring real-world relevance and career exposure to students through a virtual interface.

“The world of work was changing before the pandemic, but it’s really changing now,” says Ganga. “This means we’ve got to change, too. I’m not saying these options are better than in-person internships, but they’re another way to bring the benefits of real-world experience and engagement to students who are curious about what the world of work is like.”

Nicole Berkman, MBA

K-12 Pathway Coordinator, College and Career Advantage ROP

Like many people, Nicole Berkman’s path to her current career wasn’t exactly a straight line. Initially, she wanted to work with underserved youth, providing services to those in the foster care system. When she realized that sustaining a living in that field might be challenging, she pivoted to earning her MBA with the hopes of opening her own nonprofit to serve similar communities. During this time, she took a job as executive secretary of board operations for the Capistrano Unified School District.

Armed with an intimate knowledge of the district’s inner workings and a newly completed MBA, Berkman joined College and Career Advantage and climbed the ranks from program specialist to student services manager, and to her current position as K-12 pathway coordinator.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all for career or life,” says Berkman, who got her educational start at Valencia College, a community college in Orlando, Florida. “I feel really blessed to have the opportunity to let them know that there’s a pathway for every student, no matter what they want to do.”

Berkman’s belief that “there’s a career path for everyone” is what drove her to help establish a new career series program that she is piloting within the districts she serves. The premise is simple enough: elementary school students watch a video about a particular field and then have a chance to meet a professional within that industry.

“I love seeing students make the connection,” says Berkman, who serves College and Career Advantage ROP, the Capistrano and Laguna Beach Unified School Districts, and Saddleback and Irvine Valley Colleges. “Realizing that if they’re interested in sports, that they can go into sports medicine, or retail, or even law, showing them that they have all these ways to pursue their passions is really satisfying. It also gives them a space for self-exploration and I think that’s important. It’s good for kids at a young age to think about what they like and what they want their life to look like.”

Looking forward, Berkman is excited about enhancing existing and developing new dual enrollment programs across her districts. For example, the “Career Exploration through General Education” course being offered at Saddleback College will introduce students to one of 6 career paths while allowing them to earn fully transferable college credits for free. Similarly, the Early College Running Start program, which is a partnership between Saddleback College and Capistrano Valley High School, will help students get a head start on college while getting a more career-focused introduction to one of three career paths in automotive, business, or computer systems.

“Not only do dual enrollment programs give students a head start, but they also provide a great introduction to what college is like,” says Berkman. “For underserved students who might not have a lot of people around them who went to college, that’s a big deal. Suddenly, college is much more doable because it isn’t such a scary mystery.”