Building Pathways from School to Work
Making the classroom experience relevant to the workplace is a constant challenge for communities across the country, especially as the ways in which we earn a living change so rapidly. Federal legislation in the mid-1990s funded state block grants to fund projects that would strengthen the school-to-career connection.
Today, many of those projects are gone, unable to continue once the federal funding ran out. But some have become self-sustaining, and are building a track record in bringing the education and business communities together with the common goal of updating high school education to reflect workplace realities.
School-to-Career, Inc., in the greater New Orleans area, is one such organization. Executive director Susan Burge spoke to us about the challenges of building a meaningful partnership between schools and businesses, with the goal of graduating students who are better prepared for their next steps in life, whether they lead to college or directly to the workforce.
Burge's advice: Look where the jobs are; give both business people and teachers a strong role; and take a regional approach. School-to-Career Inc. bases its model on the creation of separate consortia of important area industries. That gives teachers access to the real-world expertise they need to create programs relevant to companies most likely to hire graduates.
Members of the area's financial services industry make up one consortium. Others include hospitality, travel and tourism companies; construction-related industries; medical facilities; and information technology.
Where did you start, with the business people or the educators?
SB: We worked with business partners first and said 'Look, you know, if you want a more qualified work force, what are you willing to do to get it?
And then, after talking to the business partners' we went to our education folks. We serve seven school districts and gathered a group of them all together along with post-secondary education folks. And we said 'There's a changing way that we're talking about doing education. You've had business partners in education that gave you computers or came in and taught a lesson once in a while. What do you really want from a business? And what are you willing to do to get it?'
And so by the bringing together of the groups separately first, then combining them, we could say, 'Now here's what both of you have said. How can we make this move forward?'
What was the first step in trying to realize those goals?
We began with educators. We did professional development for educators, engaging our business partners to welcome the teachers into the work place to see what was going on.
Back in the mid '90s that was indeed eye-opening for a lot of these folks. We continued to do that each summer, professional development for educators in teams.
And then we began to get the students. We helped the teachers build what we call the academies (within schools)—academies that would be a cluster of teachers from the different disciplines, all working together collaboratively with the specified group of kids who elected to be in that academy, because they were interested in that career field.
How did you go about letting the students know what opportunities you were creating for them? In other words, how would they know to select a specific academy?
That was done by each individual high school. If they had a team of teachers, originally it might be just one academy would spring up and teachers who had come to our workshops would ask for our continued technical assistance. They began to get sophisticated with it and began marketing to the 8th grades that would be feeding into their high schools.
The other thing that was key to this is that we were a regional entity. We worked with seven systems with 44 high schools. It was the first time that many of these teachers and administrators had worked across parish lines. There was a great deal of strength generated by that.
One group would have a travel and tourism academy and they would really get it up and running and they would say 'You need to come and see what we're doing with this.' And then someone from another school or another parish would come and visit them. We began then to grow the deal from the collaborative efforts of the teachers engaged. We then provided the connections to the workplace for not only the teachers but also for their students.
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What kinds of teaching materials and curricula were the academies working with?
We worked hard to provide them with curricula that were integrated, using both the National Academy Foundation Travel and Tourism curriculum and their Finance curriculum, and then later their Information Technology curriculum. Our business partners, along with teachers, wrote a whole ADECC (Architecture, Design, etc) curriculum... So we were not only telling teachers. 'You gotta do this to make things more relevant,' but we had them help create the lessons along with the business partners and the industry experts to enrich the core curriculum.
That collaboration sounds ingenious, yet it doesn't seem to be as widespread as one would imagine.
A couple of key pieces are important. Lots of teachers try to do this on their own, but if you have teachers from the whole school system -- or teachers from seven as we have here -- calling business partners, it gets frantic. The business partners said, "Look, if we've got an intermediary organization that can handle this, it can funnel these calls." They told that to the teachers, and that gave us strength to function as a broker and a provider of services.
And it took a load off the teachers' plate because they didn't have to sit and make all the calls, the connections and line things up. We could do that for them.
I understand the intermediary role. Are there other things that need to occur?
We have to convince business that their investment is not going to yield an immediate return. That is a big thing for business to understand—that the wheels of educational change move slowly and that if they invest a thousand dollars for a summer in a good intern, they may not get that student as a full employee until four years later. Because the goal is not only to provide them with the skills necessary to be good and productive employees who provide for their families, but also to get them to continue their education.
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Were you able to identify a kind of corporate leader who understood that quickly?
Yes indeed. There were a couple of business leaders who said, 'Not only do we understand that eventually this will contribute to our bottom line and raise the bar for everybody, but we also believe it is the right and good thing to do.'
We are the only one of the nine partnerships in the state of Louisiana which continues to operate essentially the way we were launched in '97. We have one other group that completely re-constituted a new board and connected themselves to a single industry.
Have you been able to look at the results for students over time, whether they are succeeding in their careers?
We have not and we are sorely in need of doing so. We have a lot of anecdotal information about graduates who have gone on—many of our young people have stayed employed and paid for their own college education through the jobs they secured as an intern. But we do not have a real longitudinal study. We hope to be able to do that.
The fact that (our organization) continues tells us something. Each of the parishes that we worked with and funded a school-to-career director in initially continues to support a school-to-career department in their schools. And they have grown the number of academies that they have created.
So there has been growth from your beginnings in 1997 to today.
Exactly. We were out of the federal funding by 2001, but our sustainability plan was that each parish would continue to support their school-to-career director and grow their own academies when the federal funding was gone, and that our partnerships would be funded, our coordinators would be funded by the industries that we are supporting. And that has indeed happened.
Now we are focusing on high school re-design. We do a lot with project-based learning to continue focusing on career application. But we are also using the project-based learning methodology for teaching. So it aligns exactly with what Greater New Orleans, Inc., which is a new economic development partnership here, is doing. Their goal is to create 30,000 jobs and a billion dollars in income over the next five years, and our proposal is that we're going to help fill those jobs with adequate workers.
Are you aware of any other school districts or regional consortia of school districts that have taken your plan and tried to replicate it?
They have done similar things, adapting always to their own circumstances. We work closely with Charleston, South Carolina. Our model has many similarities with one that is in Austin, Texas. Currently we're collaborating with the folks in Napa, California.
We're educators, most of us, and we get caught up in the passion of doing the right thing for the kids. But if we're going to be funded by business, then we have to produce what they need. We're real comfortable with the fact that if we do what business needs, then our students are going to be prepared to make a good living in the career pathway that they choose.