High school graduation rates have reached an all-time high in the state of California, climbing for the fifth consecutive year according to the California Department of Education.
Despite the rise, however, high school graduates remain largely unprepared for careers or higher education.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 to 40 percent of high school graduates in the United States are “neither college ready nor trained in a meaningful career skill.”
In an effort to better prepare students for 21st century careers, California has shifted its focus to Career and Technical Education through the Career Readiness Initiative. CTE, formerly known as vocational education, has evolved to integrate academic knowledge with occupational knowledge to better prepare students for either postsecondary education or technical careers.
“Before it was focused more on academics and CTE was on the sidelines, but this would put [CTE] into the game and make it more relevant as part of a student’s well-rounded education,” said Tom Mays, senior manager of the CDE’s Career and College Transition Division. “This makes [students] more marketable for the colleges and more marketable for internships and future job opportunities.”
The initiative outlines 21 objectives to support, sustain and strengthen CTE programs in the state. Among the objectives is the implementation of the California Career Pathways Trust program, which integrates academic and career-based education and training. It also links school districts and community colleges with local industries to create clear pathways for students into careers which would also meet regional economic needs.
“We’ve taken a hit over the years as far as our ability to turn out students who are career ready. They have the book smarts, but they’re not quite ready to get into a career right away,” Mays said. “So what [the program] does is it infuses into a high school curriculum a career relevant pathway for that particular region.”
Twenty-five percent of the state’s CTE courses offered meet the a-g criteria required for students to get into state colleges and universities, which allows the pathways programs to blend academics and career-based training in a dual-purpose effort to prepare students for higher education or certification to work immediately after graduation.
The career pathways program awarded $250 million to 39 consortia in 2014. According to the CDE, the state had received 123 initial applications requesting $709 million in grant funding in its first year. The high-demand prompted lawmakers’ approval for an additional $250 million for 2015, making it the largest program of its kind in the nation.
Additionally, Gov. Jerry Brown plans to spend that same amount on the program for each of the next three years.
Applications have already been submitted for the additional $250 million in funding and are currently being processed through the CDE. The applications are evaluated and scored by the CDE, the California Workforce Investment Board and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.
“Right now our education consultants and our management in our division are interviewing school districts and business partners and community college districts and they’re coming forth as partners to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do to make a go of this career pathways model and we’d like to tap into this grant money.’ It’s competitive,” Mays said. “They have to show us they have a good team built and that they have the right resources to commit to this effort.”
Among the applicants is Colton Joint Unified School District.
CJUSD was part of the large pool of applicants the career pathways program had in its first year, however did not receive the award.
Now, the district is part of two applications for a CCPT grant, according to CJUSD Curriculum Program Specialist Ken Soldmann—the first through the Colton-Redlands-Yucaipa Regional Occupational Program and the other though an alliance with eight other school districts.
“[Grant providers] want regional alliances. That’s why we have a broad base of districts that are a part of these proposals now because they’re just not funding individual districts,” Soldmann said. “They want it to have a regional impact.”
According to Soldmann, the district did receive grant funding from the James Irvine Foundation which it used to kickstart new pathways programs in 2014-15. For CJUSD, this demonstration of implementation of pathway programs could be helpful in attaining funding.
“My district is embracing not only [CTE] as a concept, but the structural implementation of integrated pathways,” Soldmann said. “The push comes both out of wanting to serve our students better—to give them a more relevant, real-world experience in high school—but also providing workers for local businesses that can do the jobs. … Really this is not just about high school and junior college kids, it’s about the economy and the job markets that we have.”
The district is located in San Bernardino County, which belongs to a larger region known as the Inland Empire. According to Soldmann, the top three industry needs in the region are information technology, advanced manufacturing and healthcare.
Local community colleges such as Crafton Hills in Yucaipa already have CTE programs partnered with local industries designed to meet regional needs, however there remains room for partnerships with the local high schools.
Arrowhead Regional Medical Center School of Radiologic Technology is one of the CTE programs offered through Crafton Hills College. Clinical coordinator Debbie Pattison echoed not only the region’s need for healthcare workers, but for students who are better prepared for the technical programs.
“There’s always going to be a need for people in the healthcare field,” Pattison said. “If you can get [students] early enough to where they get excited about the sciences and want to learn more about them and be a part [of the program] because of the science aspect, it’s a plus for us because it means they want to learn it but it’s also a plus for them because they can possibly have a career down the road.”
While the connections between the local school districts, the community colleges and the local businesses such as ARMC haven’t come full circle yet, the hospital does have an established partnership with Colton High School—one of the three CJUSD high schools. It’s the Health Education Academy of Learning, which works with ARMC to integrate academic coursework with clinical instruction.
According to Colton High School’s Vice Principal Victor Schiro, the program is in its second year and has since been joined by two other pathway programs geared toward business and hospitality.
Altogether, CJUSD has nearly 400 students involved in the eight pathways, seven of which began at the start of the 2014-15 school year. According to Soldmann, the district expects that number to jump to 850 students in the fall and continue to grow at the same rate in 2016-17 and 2017-18 with the addition of new freshmen classes.
Although the district’s pathway programs are still brand new, Soldmann notes how they have already been beneficial.
“We’re seeing the benefits of the small learning group nature of a pathway, where you have a group of six teachers working with 150 kids rather than one counselor working with 450 kids,” Soldmann said. “[There have been] 25 percent fewer Ds and Fs for pathway kids district-wide versus the general population.”
The pathway programs have also been beneficial for the educators.
“Not only is this revitalizing for me—because I was definitely at least emotionally running out of steam—it’s revitalizing the careers of some teachers who have been beaten down by No Child Left Behind, standardized testing and all of that,” Soldmann said. “It’s giving them something new to believe in.”
The revitalization of CTE programs in CJUSD predates the kickstart of the state-wide pathways program.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson toured California schools in 2012 in an effort to shine a light on the CTE programs being cut due to funding. His first stop was Colton High School.
“It was a time when school budgets were still in very dire states. There were a lot of deficits, teachers receiving pink slips and a lot of good programs being cut. Among those programs were the [CTE] programs,” said tour coordinator Jazmin Ortega. “We wanted to have a roundtable discussion with the local administrators, teachers and community partners to shine a light on why it’s so important to have [CTE] programs like Colton High School’s.”
If either of the district’s applications are awarded the funding, they will build on each of the eight pathways during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.
All grant applicants will be notified whether they will be receiving the funding in May.