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Career Ready

Author: Juliet Porton
February, 2015 Issue

Helping high school students find the career path that’s right for them

If you graduated from high school more than 20 years ago, you probably remember “vocational education,” consisting of woodshop, metal shop and a few business courses taken as electives and meant to prepare students who weren’t headed to college for immediate careers. Many of those programs later morphed into “career technical education,” or CTE, to reflect the growing importance of technology skills in the workplace.
Today, the reality is that nearly every career opportunity out there requires some form of post-secondary training or education. A 2012 Georgetown University study found that nearly two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some form of post-secondary education by 2020—a technical school, community college or four-year university. To address this, school districts are designing integrated programs to prepare young people for the careers of the future, and they’re asking for support and guidance from local business leaders to make sure these programs meet the region’s needs.

Creating career pathways

To understand the changes taking place in secondary education, we need to first think about California's traditional high school model: Each student progresses, at his or her own pace, through a series of courses in fairly compartmentalized subject matters such as math, science and English. A few elective courses are offered in areas of interest, with CTE courses added as electives relevant to a possible career field, such as automotive technology or basic computer skills. At the end of four years, all students are expected to meet one set of graduation requirements at a minimum, usually with additional requirements needed for admission to a UC campus.
In comparison, many students in the North Bay are now being offered “career pathways” within their high school schedules. A career pathway is simply a sequence of courses that focus on a particular field of career interest. The classes may be all CTE courses or a combination of academic and CTE courses, and they may qualify for high school or community college credit. For instance, the biotechnology pathway at American Canyon High School consists of two full-year courses in the subject and has been designed to meet certain requirements to enter advanced courses at Solano Community College.
“We believe every career pathway should do one of three things: meet a UC requirement, align to a community college or meet an industry certification,” says Tammie Holloway, director of the College and Career Readiness department at the Napa County Office of Education.
The biggest difference in the pathway model versus traditional CTE is the focus on integrating the work of CTE and academic teachers to make coursework relevant to students. For instance, a biotechnology CTE teacher would collaborate with math and English teachers working with the same students, so they could use a common terminology and teach students how different subjects relate to the biotechnology sector.
Another twist on the pathway model being embraced by some area high schools is the California Partnership Academy (CPA), in which students interested in the same career pathway form a sort of “school within a school” for three years, taking a series of project-based CTE courses together, as well as academic courses that address common themes found within their area of interest. Academy programs have particularly flourished in Marin, with programs such as the Academy of Physics and Technology at San Rafael High School, the Academy of Integrated Humanities and New Media (AIM) at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, and SEA-DISC, an environmental science academy at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo . Studies show that these programs are especially successful at increasing both student attendance and overall graduation rates.

Gaining real world experience

Beyond the classroom, many of the career pathway programs have a work experience component, getting students out into the community to meet and be mentored by local business owners. Schools may also offer job shadowing programs and bring in guest speakers.
The Marin County School to Career Partnership, through the CTE program of the Marin County Office of Education (MCOE), offers a particularly robust internship program. The partnership works on behalf of 13 Marin high schools to facilitate up to 500 internships each year. The eight-week internships are offered to juniors and seniors during sessions in fall, spring and summer.
Nearly 200 businesses and organizations in Marin host these internships each year. The partnership is always eager to find more opportunities as well, offering materials and one-on-one support to set up a successful program. It begins with students meeting with the School to Career liaison at their high school to look at their interests and match them up from the inventory of internships. This year’s options included IT intern at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company in Novato, firefighting intern with the Southern Marin Fire District and production assistant at the California Film Institute in San Rafael.
For the last 14 years, the partnership has worked with Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael to offer internships in more than 15 of its departments, as well as a medical assisting class through Terra Linda High School in San Rafael. High school juniors can enter the program and, for two years, take all the science courses they need relating to medical assisting while meeting their science graduation requirements. Upon graduation, they complete a summer-long, full-time clinical internship at Kaiser, after which they’re certified as medical assistants.
“It’s a great way for kids interested in medicine or health to explore the field, and for those who want to work right away or need to help support their families to gain a very employable skill,” says Ken Lippi, executive director of Marin County School to Career Partnership. “Many of them are hired by Kaiser, while others go on to work at health clinics on campus where they’re going to college.”
He believes internships such as these can show students the connection between what they’re learning in school and the real world of work.
“When you’re sitting in a lab biology class and decide you have interest and may want to pursue it a bit, and then you end up working in a public health lab, you begin to see there’s real relevance to what your teacher is saying in class each day,” says Lippi. “It inspires kids to think about education and careers in a different way.”

Building a regional workforce

Sustaining these types of programs has been difficult in lean economic times, but as interest in them grows in Sacramento, new opportunities for expansion have appeared. In June 2014, the state Department of Education awarded a $15 million California Career Pathways Trust grant to the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) to act as lead agency for a group representing six counties, including Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Solano, Lake and Mendocino. This regional organization, called the Northern California Career Pathways Alliance, is made up of representatives from all six county offices of education, 37 high schools, five community colleges, five county Workforce Investment Boards and local employers and industry leaders.
“This is really about capacity building, not about us paying for classroom equipment or supplies,” says Katie Barr, CTE grant director at SCOE, which began implementing the grant in January. “Our job is to help districts through the process of hiring work-based learning coordinators, having pathway coaches and offering professional development and technical assistance.”
School districts have the final say in whether they want these types of programs in their schools and what form they’d like them to take, as they can’t succeed without a deep commitment from teachers and administrators. The county offices help define the general parameters of a quality pathway that’s aligned with the economic indicators of the region. As Holloway explains, “This grant pulls us all together in terms of common pathways that we’re working toward.”
Of course, no program to prepare young people to meet the needs of Bay Area employers could be successful without the ongoing advice and support of local businesspeople. As such, counties have created employee advisory committees to advise them on their CTE and pathway programs. In Napa, each pathway has an employer advisory committee attached to it. The committee and pathway teachers meet yearly to discuss course objectives and to learn about industry trends and changes to be sure students are getting the most up-to-date instruction. You’ll also find high school superintendents now attending regional economic summits alongside university leaders to hear the latest forecasts on job sector growth, helping them determine what trends they need to pay attention to and how to best address them in their classes.

Shining a light on opportunities

Even with this renewed focus on career readiness, Stephen Jackson, SCOE’s director of career and technical education, stresses that the education young people receive in high school is still about much more than creating future employees.
“School is not just about preparing students for careers, it’s about lifelong learning,” he says. “Our overall mission is for them to be healthy citizens who are prepared for the future. But the more we can engage in where our economy is going, the better we’ll be able to prepare them.”
He also believes that offering relevant, experiential learning will help more kids reach higher-level academic success.
We’re learning through research that young people do better in school when it reflects their interests and they can see the value beyond the classroom,” says Jackson. “Many young people have a hard time learning heavy academic skills without some hands-on context, so the more we engage kids in those types of things, the better they’ll learn.”
Holloway believes that by expanding rigorous pathway opportunities, schools are helping students leave school with something extra in hand that has prepared them for the future.
“We believe every child can be successful and can go to college or do whatever he or she chooses to do,” she says. “Our job is to give them the tools and to shine some light on what opportunities there are in terms of post-secondary education.”

Chop’s Teen Club: A Partner in Work Readiness

In an effort to prepare young people for the workforce, many Career Technical Education (CTE) programs offer a Work Readiness Certificate, confirming students have completed an eight-week course and demonstrated a set of “core competencies,” which can include hard-to-train skills like making eye contact, showing up on time and answering the phone in a businesslike manner. The Sonoma County Office of Education offers such certificates through its CTE programs, but has also joined with local groups like Chop’s Teen Club in Santa Rosa to bring the program to kids outside the traditional school setting.
Chop’s Teen Club was opened in 2001 through a donation by Charles “Chop” DeMeo. It now has approximately 1,000 members in grades 7 to 12 who gather for cooking classes, sports, open art studios and computer lab times, as well as social events like dances and movie nights.
The 10-week work readiness program at Chop’s, called “RU Ready?,” offers kids the chance to learn practical career skills and try them out in real life situations. They practice interviewing with local employers, write résumés and learn about handling their paychecks responsibly.
For two weeks, each student has a hand in running “The Awesome Pretzel Cart,” a mobile food cart donated by Guy Fieri’s Cooking With Kids Foundation. They take turns handling money, dealing with customers, preparing food safely and planning for events. Beginning this spring, students who participate will receive a $200 stipend—and the pride that comes with a first paycheck.
What’s unique about Chop’s is that we have this real world situation here,” says Diana Curtin, executive director at Chop’s. “They’re not just in a classroom being lectured to, but they’re actually going through the competencies by doing hands-on work experience.”
Students can also work toward their barista training or basic food handler’s certificate at the club, or explore careers in digital video making, Web design and programming in the tech lounge. During Tinkering Tuesdays, they have access to electronics to take apart and put back together, working with youth supervisors to uncover their untapped technical aptitudes. Chop’s also offers an online resource called Jobs Made Real, where young people can view YouTube videos of real people explaining their jobs, along with other career information and statistics.

Preparing Students for a Global Economy

At The Healdsburg School (THS) in Healdsburg, teachers and administrators are working with children in kindergarten through eighth grade to create a different type of relevant, interdisciplinary learning experience for their students. Founded by Sandi Passalacqua in 2007, THS aims to bring its 175 students the best of rigorous academics, a focus on character development and a small, tight-knit learning community. It’s also known for its commitment to fostering respect for other worldviews and cultures.
Beginning in kindergarten, children study both Spanish and Mandarin several times a week. Language teachers work closely with lead classroom teachers to link the week’s lessons and vocabulary to what’s being taught in other subjects. The school facilitates regular volunteer opportunities for students and their families in the community. Each year, the school also coordinates travel opportunities for those in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. On these weeklong trips, students, along with teachers and parents, intensely explore the history and culture of the region as they visit. Past trips have rotated between Spanish-speaking countries, China and Washington, D.C., to study U.S. history.
World languages, service learning and travel expand a student’s perspective and encourage contribution and involvement at a local and global level,” says Dr. Nicholas Egan, THS’s head of school.
In October, the school was officially certified as an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. IB’s programs teach students to be critical thinkers who can view issues from a global outlook. At THS, students are taught to practice “perspective taking,” a mental skill that involves taking another person’s side, even if you don’t agree with it, to try to understand things from a different angle.
“This gives them the ability to relate to anybody, including people of different worldviews and cultural backgrounds, and when you can relate, you can collaborate and move forward in a much faster way,” says Egan.
He believes the careers of the future will depend much more on how we’ve been taught to think and cooperate with others than on how much data our brains can retain. Information that used to be difficult to collect is now a click away on the Internet, but the ability to analyze and share what we’ve learned will become increasingly valuable.
The world has changed,” says Egan. “To be successful, it’s no longer enough simply to have a predefined knowledge set. The ability to collaborate and think critically, along with the confidence to take risks and show mental flexibility, are crucial skills for success in the global economy.


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