PREP-KC artfully explores career paths for students

The industrial snarl of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s freight elevator cued the art students’ descent into an unusual tour.

Their teenage eyes rolled upward at the steel ceiling. They listened to the heavy echoes.

There was someone down in the museum’s cool, dry caverns whom the visual art students from Kansas City’s Paseo Academy were supposed to meet.

Call it career counseling.

Riding down were teenagers including Jaida Simmons, who’d traced her artistry to when she was 9 with a sketchbook in her lap, drawing the forlorn trees and concrete slab in the empty lot across her street.

There was Jose Talamantes, unsure of what kind of artist he can be, who was enthralled with the colors and textures created by his Arizona cousin, a tattoo artist.

The man awaiting them, on this leg of the tour, was Jack VanDerWerf.

A preparator.

His was a job that none of the students knew existed.

And that’s the point behind the growing number of career exploration trips that high schools wish to make a staple of all students’ education:

You don’t have to wager all of your education chips on one career outcome.

VanDerWerf had been an art student like them, he told the students assembled around him in the Nelson’s high-ceilinged storage room.

He went to graduate school to paint.

Got a degree in graphic design.

“Didn’t like it,” he said.

But he still loved art. And here he was surrounded by it.

Turned out he had more of a creative knack for building things — like the carefully designed crate of wood and Ethafoam sitting before them that nested a 13th century ceramic pot.

He made it easy to unhinge for quick viewing by curators, but easily buttoned up and safe.

“It can live like that for a hundred years,” he said.

A fun job it is, “if you like thinking creatively and making stuff, and like being around the objects.”

PREP-KC, a private nonprofit agency that supports education programming in some of the area’s urban school districts, has been recruiting business partners to help give more students these kinds of experiences.

The career exploration effort includes “career jumping” events where students move from table to table meeting working-world ambassadors in a sort of speed-dating setup.

The schools organize college campus trips that are tailored to students’ career interests. They try to introduce students to as many varieties of careers in any given field as they can.

They do these trips for a wide range of student interests, including business and finance, health careers, communication and arts, and science, technology, engineering and math.

They target ninth-graders and 10th-graders — students in that pivotal stage of high school where many fall out.

“We want to give a robust picture of all the pathways,” said PREP-KC Vice President Kathleen Boyle Dalen.

“Once students have careers envisioned, it’s easier to make their high school experience more relevant to them,” she said. “It’s more clear what they’re working for and they know that their careers can change.”

At the Nelson, the art students also met a conservator, Paul Benson, who combined his studio art class experience with organic chemistry and found himself manning high-tech instruments such as an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to check the integrity of a purported art relic.

They met an exhibit designer, a marketing director and a lighting director who came from a love for photography.

In other words, if their aspirations to be fine artists fall short, or if they need a steadier income while launching an art career, there are many ways to make a living around art.

Paseo sophomore David Conway, 15, sees himself spreading out his post-high school options. Not just painting and ceramics, but architecture, too.

Jose, 16, does not see himself following the tattooing profession that initially inspired him, but said he wants to continue sampling a spectrum of art.

He left the Nelson tour impressed with the way the workers “showed they really cared for art.”

Jaida, 17, already has a practical outlet in the business of art while she continues her education. She is creating elegant cake designs with her mother in her Kansas City business, Tis So Sweets.

The message in career education is stay motivated. Keep on track.

“Around here,” said Paseo art teacher Pamela Sahl, “we teach the language of art. We don’t just make it.”

She wants her students taking advantage of the knowledge that will come if they stay focused on school.

“If they can just get to college,” she said, “so many careers will be available to them.”