Online ‘pathways’ help student learn trade

A school district in southern Minnesota offers online, career-minded coursework for students statewide.

Man in safety clothing working at aggregate mine
Ulland Brothers oiler Ryan Milton checks to see that a conveyor is properly moving material Wednesday at a gravel pit in Gnesen Township north of Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Ryan Milton had a full-time job about a week after he graduated from Northeast Range School in Babbitt last spring.

The 18-year-old has spent his summer as an oiler on a three-person team at a gravel pit north of Duluth, making sure that the massive, chugging machines there stay in working order as they crush and sort rocks into different consistencies for regional road projects.

“I make big rocks small,” Milton joked during a free moment at work Wednesday.

Man is safety clothing working at aggregate mine
Ulland Brothers oiler Ryan Milton operates a skid steer to keep areas around aggregate mining equipment clear of derbis Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Milton estimated he works about 60-70 hours each week, and that he’s earned about $25,000 before taxes since he started. Originally from Embarrass, Milton and a handful of other pit workers live in small trailers near the gravel pit's entrance.

The money, of course, appealed to him, but Milton also noted that other jobs in the same vein can fall to the wayside during the winter.


Man is safety clothing working at aggregate mine
Ryan Milton checks on a screen deck while running aggregate mining equipment Wednesday at Ulland Brothers in Gnesen Township.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“You can’t put asphalt on the road all year and dig up roads all year, but what you can do all year is crush a rock,” Milton said. “Pretty much everywhere in the world, there’s going to be a need for rocks being crushed.”

Milton’s interest in heavy equipment began at a young age, and he said he didn’t want to head to college after he graduated from high school. His dad has worked the same sort of job for the last 20 or so years and helped Milton land the gig at the gravel pit, which is operated by Ulland Brothers contractors.

“It was kind of a thing where I was like, if I don’t like it, I can always change it,” Milton told the News Tribune.

Besides joyful rides in his grandpa’s front-loader and countless hours tinkering in the family garage, Milton got a start on his incipient career via a “pathway” for budding operating engineers at the Minnesota Virtual Academy, an all-online K-12 school run by Houston Public Schools in southeastern Minnesota.

About 350 miles north of Houston, Milton learned general maintenance techniques, grading and staking, and construction-grade math alongside required classes at his traditional high school. He said he believes the classes helped him pass the tests he needed to join the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. Milton said he had a job lined up at Ulland before he received his high school diploma.

Man is safety clothing working at aggregate mine
Ryan Milton talks about his work as an oiler in Gnesen Township.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The virtual academy enrolls K-12 students from across the state. It’s been a wing of Houston’s school district for 21 years. Per-student money from the state is the financial bread and butter for school districts across Minnesota, and Houston district leaders put the academy together to attract more students and keep the district’s doors open, according to Superintendent Mary Morem.

About 500 students attend Houston Public Schools in person, and another 1,600 or so attend the virtual academy.

The “pathways” within the academy are meant for students in grades 6-12, and they’re much newer than the virtual school — they’re in the same vein as the career “academies” that have sprung up across the region over the past few years. Students who pick a pathway at the virtual school take coursework designed to give them a taste of a future career in nursing, IT, marketing and other fields.


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The operating engineers pathway that Milton took is run in conjunction with Local 49, whose members offer staff time and use of a Hinckley training center for pathway students.

A bill state lawmakers approved in March 2021 apportioned $100,000 to the Houston district so administrators there can reimburse school districts whose students opt for a virtual academy pathway part time. The aim is to avoid hampering those district’s finances if a student opts for a pathways class.

Man is safety clothing working at aggregate mine
Ulland Brothers oiler, Ryan Milton, with some of the equipment he is responsible for operating and maintaining seen on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, at a gravel pit in Gnesen Township north of Duluth
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The same bill also requires Houston leaders to report to the Legislature on the program by January 2024.

Morem said the academy’s pathways can help students even if they’re not considering the field a given pathway might point them toward.

“Even if you’re maybe going to be a welder, but it’s a construction class or it is a heavy equipment class, it might give you some knowledge that you might need when you are a welder for a pipeline or whatever,” she said. “I think it opens doors.”

Families will be able to see the approach of the vehicles taking their children to and from school. Nearly 1,000 users have already signed up for the online service.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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