Dr. René Cantú and Gov. Steve Sisolak at the J4NG 5-of-5 award ceremony in October 2020.
Dr. René Cantú, executive director of the state’s Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates program, says COVID-19 has prompted the Silver State’s educators to pivot in ways this past year they never had to before, and it’s a success to celebrate.
“We’re using technology to the maximum – we’re using Zoom, we’re able to have virtual career tours and guest speakers, and one of the key things is practicing interviewing skills,” he said. “They’re still able to do mock interviews (for students) with volunteers from across the community.”
Cantú wants to keep maximizing similar opportunities to help youth, like those in Carson City’s Pioneer High School, to remain inspired or have access to mentors or resources through the pandemic and beyond. One way he intends to do that for now is to serve on the Nevada State Board of Education to which he was just elected this November.
“Students and teachers are trudging one foot in front of the other, and we should be keeping students engaged,” he said. “There’s a level of resignation that this is how things are. … We need to keep some hope that this is going to pass, put it behind us, stay optimistic and keep doing the best we can.”
Cantú, a resident of Summerlin North in Las Vegas, is married and has two sons. He previously worked as vice president of multicultural affairs for Nevada State College. He founded Jobs for America’s Graduates, now J4NG, in 2014, and it has assisted more than 18,000 students in the state, following them for about 12 to 24 months after they graduate to ensure they secure jobs successfully in a career field of their choice.
Helping schools like Pioneer, which to date has a 100% graduation rate for every student in its program who completes their education there, makes J4NG special, Cantú said. The school on average has about 75% of its students working full-time, going to college full-time or combining both, he said.
“Our other key focus is getting job skills and learning about careers, and what we focus on is can we help young people prepare for jobs of the future,” he said. “And in this downturn, where many people are losing jobs, there’s some industries like advanced manufacturing with Tesla or Blockchains who can’t hire enough people, and so we have built apprenticeships and partnerships with these companies so we can help young people to get not just a job but a career.”
J4NG now exists in 14 of Nevada’s 17 school districts, working with staff and students to provide a curriculum that develops students’ resume writing abilities, budgeting and life development.
Jim Dahl, Cantú’s regional program director working out of the management team’s Reno office, said students are finding their confidence through J4NG’s offerings even though the pandemic might have limited availability taking students for visitation. Technology has been a useful ally. Kinross Gold Corp. in Reno, he noted, has compiled a series of videos to demonstrate its operations at its local mine sites.
“We’re keeping them engaged and inviting them to see options that are available to them,” Dahl said. “They’re bringing in guest speakers into the classrooms. Logistically, we’re able to show them a lot more opportunities. As for me, I’m a blue plater. The more opportunities I can show them, the better for them. I’m on cloud nine. One of the students … has an interest in welding, and they’d never thought of a career at a mine site before. It’s things like that that are silver linings.”
A main concern for now is to make sure students remain successful in their current environment, with the hope that they can return to classrooms as quickly as possible. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s announcement on Wednesday authorizing districts to increase capacity rates to 75 percent or up to 250 people in enclosed spaces and up to 66% on school buses with proper social distancing are moving schools closer to full in-person instruction again.
Cantú said his involvement on the State Board of Education, comprised of four elected members from Nevada’s four congressional districts and seven by appointment, will be a chance to make sure districts are producing outcomes they need for all students. The board met recently for the first time a little more than a month ago, and Cantú said the experience was eye-opening. The board oversees the policy for educational services and works with local stakeholders to improve access within school districts, helping students to become college and career ready.
“We’re facing a very serious teacher shortage,” he said. “The conversation was around class size, and we’re not needing class size reduction. We would need to hire around 3,000 teachers to get to average.”
They’re also concerned about returning all students to in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so if families desire that for their children, he said.
“Schools are not superspreaders,” Cantú said. “It’s a matter of if we do what we’re supposed to do for each other, we can keep ourselves much more safe. If you’re not wearing a mask, don’t come in.”
Cantú, acknowledging the challenges still ahead from the Legislature for education, said it was important to “keeping doing the best we can” for students and educators.
“Once we’re able to navigate and come back to life statewide, students will be back in classes,” Cantu said. “I tend to believe there’s a brighter horizon when you through a difficult time that you can grow a lot from it. We’ll be better prepared for it. … There will be brighter days ahead.”