A Catalyst for Connecting High School Students with Real-World Experiences

Photo by Robin Fultz

Photo by Robin Fultz

By creating the Catalyst program, Clayton High School business teacher Justin Hildebrand is able to connect St. Louis-area high school students with authentic career experiences and opportunities.

A Clayton alum, Hildebrand entered The University of Missouri with aspirations of becoming an engineer. Within the first month of college, though, he realized that his perception of engineering differed greatly from reality. “I never once spoke to an engineer before deciding on that degree,” he remembers. So Hildebrand switched to business administration, setting himself up for yet another disappointment when he started working in finance.

“I wish I had the opportunities to shadow—or even have a candid conversation with—an engineer or a financial analyst or an accountant,” he says. “That may have changed my path or expedited the process and saved a lot of time and heartache and money.”

Hoping to make those valuable connections possible for today’s high school students, Hildebrand brought the Catalyst concept to Clayton High School when he joined the staff two years ago as a business teacher. Modeled after the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) program developed by Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas, Hildebrand offers students real-world business experiences. “I strongly believe that creating opportunities for kids to meet with professionals will eliminate kids deciding on a career path based primarily on what their parents do or something they learned about on television,” he says.

In the 2017-2018 school year, Hildebrand piloted Catalyst during one class period in a single semester, then broadened his outreach to two class periods throughout the following school year, doubling the number of students reached. To Clayton High School Principal Dan Gutchewsky, Catalyst offered an innovative approach to teaching. "Catalyst is an amazing opportunity for our students because it extends their learning beyond the classroom and provides real world experience,” Gutchewsky says. “The mentoring and business partnerships allow students to apply their learning in ‘real’ situations and it allows students to pursue possible career interests without the commitment of a college degree program."

Photo by Robin Fultz

Photo by Robin Fultz

This academic year, Hildebrand expanded Catalyst to surrounding schools in the Ladue, Brentwood and University City school districts. The 30 participating students meet at Medici Mediaspace, an offsite co-working space each weekday afternoon for an hour and a half. “I think of it as their job,” Hildebrand says.

Describing himself as a “party planner” for the class, Hillebrand brings in business partners throughout the year, allowing the students to hear from experts on topics such as Professionalism 101. Local business people also offer advice on networking, email etiquette, resumes and cover letters.

For three months, Hildebrand devotes the class solely to hearing from experts, which he acknowledges is his favorite portion of the experience. “That’s the part of me who wished I would have spoken with professionals,” he says.

Professionals from a wide variety of industries, including hospitality, finance, engineering, medicine and non-profit, offer candid conversations about their careers. Each visitor shares his or her personal and professional journey, and often, the guests extend an invitation for students to visit their workplace to learn more about their day-to-day experiences. Catalyst also offers consulting services to business partners, providing a valuable perspective from the much-coveted teenage demographic.


Throughout the year, students focus on a passion project. Tasked with developing a new business idea, they identify a gap in the market and brainstorm toward a solution. Individually, the budding entrepreneurs create a business plan that focuses on financing, marketing, product development and prototyping. By the end of the school year, students pitch their product to a group of “investors” to earn cash prizes. During its inaugural year, two seniors at Clayton High School won a small stipend toward college with their idea of individualized care packages.

“Educators are no longer the keeper of the knowledge,” says Hildebrand. “Students are very quick to say, ‘why do I need to have you regurgitating information to me, when I can look that up.’” Experts agree with this trend. According to a report from Pew Research Center on the future of jobs and job training, “intangible skills, capabilities and attributes such as emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience and critical thinking will be most highly valued” and “practical experiential learning via apprenticeships and mentoring will advance.”

With Catalyst, Hildebrand is at the forefront of preparing students for their future careers. And the innovative approach has already yielded positive results. Several students developed relationships with business partners and secured internships. One decided to study business and entrepreneurship based on his positive Catalyst experience. “Prior to Catalyst, this student felt he had no guidance or knew what he wanted to do for a living,” recalls Hildebrand. “It was cool to hear his parents say that it was because he was in the program that he feels like he has direction. That’s a win for me.”

Hildebrand hopes to continue expanding Catalyst by including professionals from other high-demand fields such as bioscience, technology solutions, education and engineering. As the program continues to grow, he feels confident he can guide students to be well-rounded individuals who use their intelligence, creativity and initiative to enrich the world.

Photo by Elizabeth Macanufo

Photo by Elizabeth Macanufo