When she was just a freshman in high school, Kayla Nocon found herself sitting in the pews of her church at Saturday night service, asking God for guidance.
As her pastor delivered his sermon, he began to speak about a firefighter he knows and something inside Nocon just clicked.
“It just kind of felt like a tunnel of light,” she said. “And ever since that, all these options for becoming a firefighter have opened up.”
If it was a higher power that called Nocon to a career in firefighting, that power was not yet finished delivering guidance. At school one day, she heard about a program called Career Start at Pikes Peak Community College, which allows students to earn college credits and learn about a variety of professions — everything from automotive technology to culinary arts and zookeeping.
During her senior year at Air Academy High School, Nocon, who’s now 20 years old, spent her mornings taking fire science technology classes at PPCC, learning the ins and outs of her dream profession, and attending high school classes in the afternoons.
She said one major benefit of the program is that the instructors who taught her courses weren’t just academics, but working Colorado Springs firefighters.
Sharon Tunson, assistant dean of high school programs for PPCC, said all of the program’s instructors are professionals with experience in the fields they teach.
Having real professionals, Tunson said, gives Career Start students a firsthand glimpse of what the job is actually like, and exactly what it requires.
Because of the time she spent in the program during high school, Nocon is currently on track to graduate from PPCC with an associate degree in December, less than two years after graduating from high school.
She said her experience in Career Start was so “amazing,” she now works in PPCC’s High School Programs office, helping local high school students explore options available to them to jump-start their college careers.
Josiah Gooch, 17, is a current student in the Career Start program. He is studying automotive technology while working toward his high school diploma at Discovery Canyon High School.
From the time Gooch was about 12, he’s had a passion for all things related to cars, particularly the creativity involved in fixing, upgrading and maintaining them.
One day at school, a counselor saw Gooch wearing a shirt with cars printed on it and asked if he might be interested in exploring Career Start to study to become an automotive technician.
“I did a tour and just fell in love with the program,” Gooch said,“just from the size of the bays and the amount of talent the school has and the fact that I could do it during high school.”
Gooch is just one of 560 students from 70 Pikes Peak-area schools who are getting a jump on their college education by participating in the program, which has been a part of Colorado Springs’ secondary education for more than 40 years.
“As far as academics, I feel like I’ve learned more in the past few months than I had for years prior,” Gooch said. “I’m going to continue in the PPCC program for another two or three years and get all my certifications to become a master technician … and my dream is to one day open up my own shop.”
Tunson said Career Start and other PPCC high school programs for juniors and seniors position students for success in life after high school, whether that’s setting them on a path toward their desired career, or giving them their first taste of college academics.
Beyond Career Start, which is specifically for students exploring career opportunities in set degree and certificate programs, there’s also concurrent enrollment, where students earn college credit by taking PPCC courses alongside their high school studies; high school articulation, where students enrolled in career technical education courses at their schools may be eligible for college credit; and its newest program, Pivot, which helps school-aged high school dropouts earn their diplomas and college credits.
All of PPCC’s high school programs are paid for by their individual school districts at no cost to students.
Janet Nace, associate dean of high school programs for PPCC, said Pivot is in its fifth semester but has already helped six students who’d previously dropped out of high school earn their high school diplomas. Those students are now furthering their education at PPCC.
Nace said Pivot doesn’t have partnerships with all Pikes Peak area school districts and works primarily with Harrison School District 2, Widefield School District 3, Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 and Colorado Springs School District 11.
They’re also in discussions with Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 and Academy School District 20.
“This is not a high school program; this is a post-secondary program,” Nace said.
“So we’re looking at a very specific segment of kids who have dropped out of high school or are at risk for dropping out … but still want to graduate and would like to go to college.”
Students who enroll in Pivot take all of the courses they need to complete their high school graduation requirements at PPCC and can take additional courses that align with their career aspirations.
“We give them the best academic foundation that we can,” Nace said.
Nace and Tunson said one of the biggest challenges they face in their high school programs office is simply getting the word out.
Tunson said she often speaks to parents at education summits and conferences who are unaware these opportunities exist.
“We’re just trying to lift the community up, so we’re continuing to bang this drum about these opportunities,” Nace said.
“Especially in this situation we’re in now with the pandemic,” Tunson said, “PPCC offers opportunities for so much of our community to go to school, get some training. There’s great scholarships and it’s a great opportunity.”