Partnerships With Promise: Relevancy In Schools Through Workplace Learning

September 30, 2014
Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Ill.

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By Dr. Lazaro Lopez

What was once a rite of passage in our collective coming-of-age stories—the summer job—has quickly succumbed to the weight of the recession, and with it, countless experiences essential to the academic development of our nation’s youth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the summer labor participation rate for all youth (16-24) declined from a high of 77.5% in 1989 to 60.5% in 2013. This downward trend in youth employment has the potential to have a significant economic and academic impact.

These early workplace experiences provide students with valuable insights into their areas of interests, along with ample opportunities to apply and develop personal skillsets. Consider their added value when purposefully structured within a defined career pathway to build a network of professional contacts necessary for future employment in the field. Even more importantly, these experiences aid in answering the eternal question we ask every teenager in high school: “What are you going to do with your life?” Early workplace experiences, whether a summer job or focused internship, provide a foundation to discovering one’s future and an essential pathway to relevancy for schools.

Colleges and universities have discovered that workplace experiences in the form of internships or pre-professional requirements lead to more marketable students and higher rates of employment for their graduates. Workplace learning is not new to schools as cooperative education programs (which combine classroom lessons with practical work experiences) certainly have a history in secondary education. These programs, however, have been relegated to the cursory few as elective opportunities without a direct and purposeful connection to the college and career goals of the student. As a result, there is little perceived relevance by students in what they do in the classroom and their future.

This is substantiated in the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement, conducted by the Center for Educational Policy at Indiana University. With 350,000 students surveyed across 40 states, 66% said they were bored on a daily basis, with the most common causes cited being that the “the material was NOT interesting” or that there was a “lack of relevance of the material.” Consider the impact the lack of engagement in school or exposure to career opportunities has on a student’s ability to identify and pursue a post-secondary degree or certification program that aligns with their skills. With the rising cost of college tuition, changing majors or entering college undecided now comes with an unsustainable price tag. The New York Federal Reserve reports student debt has tripled between 2004 and 2012, reaching close to $1 trillion. Students can no longer afford to go to college without a clear pathway discovered long before the freshman year in college. With a 70% increase in the number of borrowers and average debt per person, our nation’s economy can’t afford it either.

If we can connect the dots between what students are excited about in their future and the classes they take, they are more engaged, more motivated, and more likely to challenge themselves with honors or advanced placement.  For our nation’s high schools to be relevant in this new economy, they must serve as an integral part in a student’s progression toward a career pathway informed by workplace learning experiences.


Engagement Through Relevance

There are 16 nationally recognized career clusters, each with a common set of foundational knowledge and skills represented in the Illinois Career Cluster Framework. Restructuring high schools through the lens of the career cluster framework requires leadership willing to engage the broader business community in a direct and meaningful way with the academic programs of the school. The result is students leave our high schools not just meeting traditional graduation requirements, but with what we call a “Diploma Plus” which includes industry credentialing, early college credit, and workplace learning experiences that lay the foundation for a post-secondary career. Three non-negotiable principles guided our work in the Programs of Study structure:

1.              Sequence of courses that leads beyond high school. Every elective course serves a purpose to advance a student along one of the career pathways within the 16 career clusters in the Illinois framework. While every school and district cannot feasibly offer every pathway in each cluster, every school can set a goal to provide career pathways represented by every cluster.

2.              External experiences take on a multitude of forms, including problem-based learning, internships, site visits, competitions, real-world challenges, summer enrichment, and anything else that brings authenticity to the classroom and informs a student’s career choice. Person-to-person engagement and interaction is the most essential component to ensuring relevance and engagement in the classroom and requires the school leaders to engage in myriad partnerships. At a minimum, graduating students should have an opportunity to participate in a micro-internship related to their selected program of study.

3.              Career certification and dual college credit opportunities are embedded in each program of study. It is the combination of external experiences along with stackable credentials and early college credit that ensures students leave high school with a resume ready to engage in the next steps in their career pathway.

In key career pathways for our community, industry partners serve on advisory boards providing curriculum feedback, guidance on facility renovations, and providing workplace-learning experiences. These experiences may be a traditional 16-week internship with the student earning a grade. It could also be a micro-internship, generally only a few weeks in duration, focused on a specific project or activity. In a larger school district, micro-internships can be scaled much more quickly and efficiently, avoiding some of the challenges of a long-term placement while still providing students with an opportunity to engage in an industry of interest. Other partners provide site visits, mentors, or design problem-based learning challenges for teams of students to solve.


School Leadership

School leaders considering establishing a career pathway structure at their secondary institutions should begin by engaging the leading industries and employers in the area. The capacity for relevance in the school is maximized in the development of enriching external experiences. These experiences provide a venue for authentic audiences and allow for the integration of career pathways.

In determining where to begin, school leaders must start with the strengths of the school and build upon that foundation. Are there natural partnerships nearby? What fields or occupations are most in demand in your region’s economy? There are other questions to be asked as well, but one of the best resources for a school leader is the local and state economic development office. Their mission is to be connected with the needs of businesses in the community and those of potential businesses they are seeking to recruit.  A deep and collaborative relationship between the school and the economic development office of its community can serve as an economic catalyst for the area they serve.

By any measure, the most impactful relationships for students with a business partner must be based on mutually beneficial goals. If it’s not a win-win, it’s not sustainable. Embedded in the school experience should be ample opportunities for career exploration and discovery through multi-tiered systems of support, which provides both enrichment and intensive interventions for students unable to determine a career cluster of interest.

The role of the school leader requires an innumerable set of skills, but two of the most important in this effort are stewardship of a vision and sustaining the school culture. It is the leader’s ability to successfully apply these skills that lays the foundation for all that is accomplished in the school. First and foremost, a school leader must be able to coalesce the staff around a common vision of relevance and external engagement for the school. The vision must be reinforced andcommunicated in a multitude of forms both written and verbal from large group presentations to individual conversations on a regular basis. This is essential, because it is the common vision that drives every facet of school improvement. It provides the underpinning for a collective ownership of successes and failures that engages each stakeholder.

Second, and equally as important, a school leader must purposefully sustain a school culture that is committed to providing each student every possible opportunity to discover his or her future from the moment they enter the school doors. Ultimately, leadership is about the power to influence, and the ability of the school leader to foster a positive culture is directly correlated to the depth and breadth of the organization’s ability to fulfill its vision.


Impact of Relevancy

High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Ill., encompasses six comprehensive high schools serving eight communities and 12,000 students. Each has been recognized by national publications as among America’s most successful high schools. Students who graduate with a Diploma Plus leave high school more competitive, already building his or her resume through dual college credits, industry certifications, and access to substantive, real-world workplace learning opportunities.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized the value of this experience in his recent visit to one of the nation’s first high school nanotechnology labs, located in the district at Wheeling High School [vii] in suburban Chicago. Students enrolled in Introduction to Nanotechnology earn dual-credit in this capstone course within the Research and Development Career Pathway. The project was made possible through partnerships between the district, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition. Course content and student research experiences have been developed through a coalition of large corporate partners and small start-ups.

As a result of partnerships with countless local manufacturers and affiliate organizations—such as the SME Education Foundation, the Technology and Manufacturing Association, and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association—the district’s Project Lead the Way (PLTW) engineering curriculum is enhanced with three state of the art manufacturing facilities. Students in the Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing Pathway can earn National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) Certification, Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC) Certification, and up to 22 semester hours of dual-credit through Harper College.

One recent partner, Panek Precision in Northbrook, Ill.., designed a three-week rotating internship experience that provided students with a chance to engage several hands-on areas within their manufacturing facility. In an effort to address the demand for workers in computer science, the district partnered with industry leaders  to redesign an Information Technology Career Pathway that is contextualized within a cybersecurity lens. In partnership with Mobile Makers in Chicago, a new computer science orientation course will train high school freshman how to code for app development on their IOS devices, followed by the acquisition of several CompTia industry certifications and early college credit coursework.

In examining the value of career pathways as an effective education model, we must understand how it impacts students. Many of these workplace-learning experiences lead to employment with the relationships continuing well into the student’s post-secondary experience. A recent graduate of Wheeling High School, Mallory, entered the engineering/manufacturing career pathway with a small spark of interest in how things are made. Her experiences in the PLTW Computer Integrated Manufacturing class, the district’s robot rumble challenge, and the opportunity to design and manufacture her ideas into reality led her into an internship at Swiss Precision Machining. Even as she began attending the University of Southern California, pursuing a degree in aeronautical engineering, she still returned to Swiss Precision in the summers to work. Today, while Mallory continues her education, she has an internship with the Air Force Research Laboratories in California. She credits her machining experience and coursework for her success.

Francisco, another Wheeling High School graduate, worked extremely hard, staying after school at least three days a week to get one-on-one time on the machines. At the end of the class, Francisco took the MSSC and NIMS certification exams, earning entry-level credentials. It was the work ethic he developed that inspired many industry partners to give him an interview. He landed his first job at Holbrook Manufacturing, where he is regarded as a "model" employee. Today, Francisco is still thrilled about manufacturing. He was able to purchase his first car, a healthcare plan, and has had multiple raises in his short 12-month career. Francisco was proud to be able to contribute financially to his family, noting that he was actually making more than his mother, who was struggling to support them. As of today, Francisco plans on saving enough money to attend the local community college and earn an Associate’s degree, specializing in machining.

In a time of fiscal insecurity and high unemployment, this work in schools is essential and scalable. By being responsive to the global economy, partnering with business, and remaining flexible in the development and delivery of curriculum that is relevant to its students, public education can work for students. The career pathway structure provides the business community with an opportunity to shape education in partnership with school leaders by providing students with meaningful workplace experiences, advice on industry trends, and a relevant preparation for post-secondary life.

Preparing students for the future is a growing challenge—evolving industries, changing technologies and shrinking economies require us to prepare students for a world we can’t even imagine. The career pathways model is a different and effective way to approach secondary education. It exposes students to a wide range of opportunities and challenges their intellectual curiosity. For career pathways to be successful, however, businesses must be a partner to schools, develop substantive hands-on experiences for students, and champion rigorous programs of study.

So, what role is your business playing in keeping schools relevant and helping youth in your community discover their future? 


Dr. Lazaro Lopez is Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning at High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois. The nationally recognized district is the state’s second-largest high school district, serving more than 12,000 students from eight suburban Chicago communities.


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