High school students study on laptops.
The Launch virtual learning platform developed by Springfield Public Schools will be used to provide free career-centered courses to high school students across Missouri. (Photo courtesy Launch Virtual Learning)

Starting this fall, high school students across Missouri will be able to enroll in free virtual classes that will not only teach them specific career skills, but will also end with certifications or credentials to get paying work in their chosen fields.

The program, which is funded by the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, uses the virtual learning platform developed and housed at Springfield Public Schools. The platform is called Launch. 

The Launch Missouri’s Workforce program will debut this fall with online classes focused on careers in education, information technology, hospitality and food services and financial and professional services. Nichole Lemmon, Launch director at SPS, said the initial four career paths are workforce development priorities of Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, with information technologies being the top need. 

“We need students who have coding credentials out of high school,” Lemmon said. “Whether they go on to a two-year opportunity at their local technical center or they go to a four-year university or they want to go straight to work, we need students who are ready to go to work. IT was the first request.”

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Program provides students with certification, credentials to get hired ASAP

The Launch virtual learning platform developed by Springfield Public Schools will be used to provide free career-centered courses to high school students across Missouri. (Photo courtesy Launch Virtual Learning)

Prioritizing the development of more educators across the state, Lemmon admitted, is “a little bit selfish.” But teacher shortages are part of the reason why Launch was developed a decade ago and why development resumed on the virtual workforce program after the pandemic halted progress. In rural areas of Missouri, many students don’t have in-person learning pathways to some of the courses Launch is offering. 

“We’re helping to provide really specific career technical education courses that districts may not be able to staff,” Lemmon said. 

Initially, there will be 600 available slots in the Launch Missouri’s Workforce program, and Lemmon said that number will grow as career training offerings expand. While she anticipates many will take what they learned with them to get two- or four-year higher education degrees, the program is designed to get them workforce ready upon high school graduation. In the IT field, students will be able to get certified in the Python programming language, for instance. And when students complete the teacher training courses as part of the virtual learning program, they will leave high school with a substitute teaching certificate, Lemmon said. 

“Every pathway that we’re developing ends with an industry-recognized credential,” she said. “When you take a two-year (Launch Missouri’s Workforce) sequence, you can go to work in that field.”

Career learning has been on Launch staff radar for years

High school students study on laptops.
The Launch virtual learning platform developed by Springfield Public Schools will be used to provide free career-centered courses to high school students across Missouri. (Photo courtesy Launch Virtual Learning)

Launch, which was developed by and is based at SPS, already offers virtual learning opportunities to Missouri’s K-12 students, with districts paying tuition fees for their students and classes counting toward a district’s attendance rates, which are key components of the state education funding equation. Launch is in its 10th year and currently provides virtual learning opportunities from Missouri-certified instructors to 370 Missouri school districts. 

“I like to say Launch was here long before the pandemic,” she said. “We’ll be here long after.”

Like the courses already offered by Launch, the career training will have certified instructors.

“You’re not learning from a computer, you’re learning on a computer, and there’s a huge difference with that,” she said. “All of these have a live teacher. We will be bringing in industry experts. What’s great about virtual is we can bring them in from all over the state. When I started this program, I had a student tell me: ‘You know, without Launch, Dr. Lemmon, I only see boarded-up buildings in cornfields. And because of Launch, I can see a lot of other possibilities in our state. I see a lot of opportunity.’ And that’s the goal. It’s not just what you see in your community, but what else is available.”

Students in the SPS district who take the classes have been approved to receive career and technical education (CTE) dual high school and college credit. That decision is pending for other districts across the state.

Lemmon said that developing career-focused classes has been on her staff’s radar for years and that she is excited that the partnership with the state helped it come to fruition. The state is providing funding to develop the classes and cover the costs of tuition, and in a news release, the state’s workforce development director, Mardy Leathers, said the program will impact students and employers alike. 

This program will eventually provide free classes to help students get head starts in 11 career areas, Lemmon said. Along with the four pathways available this fall, there will be courses taught in agribusiness, biosciences, construction, energy, health sciences, manufacturing and transportation and logistics. 

To learn more about the program, visit fueledbylaunch.com/workforce.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson