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Colonial School District sets the pace in Career Pathways offerings

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media

When Delaware launched its Career Pathways program in 2015, the Colonial School District was ahead of the curve – and it continues to stand out as an example of implementing meaningful programming in career and technical education.

The district, based in New Castle and extending along the Delaware River from a sliver of Wilmington’s East Side to just south of the C&D Canal, got a jump start nearly a decade ago, when it started using its share of federal Race to the Top grants to rethink its offerings at William Penn High School, according to Assistant Superintendent Jeff Menzer, who was then principal at William Penn.

At the time, William Penn’s reputation – and the district’s – was suffering. Achievement levels were lagging and enrollment was dropping, with growing numbers of students opting to enroll instead at vocational-technical high schools.

The solution developed at William Penn was to divide the school into three “colleges,” with each one themed around core interest areas: business, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the humanities. Under this arrangement, while taking all the classes needed to meet state graduation requirements, students could better focus their learning by building out their schedules with classes in the college that most closely matched their interest.

The college framework was in place when Pathways began, and the new Pathways fields added a strong backbone to the colleges, Menzer says.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Principals Brian Erskine (William Penn) and Kevin White (Wallace Wallin) confer in the Work-Based Learning Center.

Menzer designated Brian Erskine, then an assistant principal and now William Penn’s principal, to beef up the program. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” he says. “We enhanced it.”

The state designed Pathways to be a series of three-year programs, but connecting Pathways to existing classes enabled William Penn to create four-year sequences, Erskine says.

“We wanted our ‘majors’ to have the same sense that college programs have, and we wanted to do more to be sure there would be jobs available for our graduates” who were not headed to four-year colleges, Erskine says.

At the time, the district also surveyed its middle and high school students and found interest in three key areas – engineering, culinary arts and allied health. Those areas became focal points as the school determined which pathways to add to its programming.

Some of the developments at William Penn presaged what was coming with Pathways statewide.

The year before Pathways began, William Penn partnered with Delaware Technical Community College in a pilot program in advanced manufacturing. For two years, juniors and seniors split their time between William Penn and a nearby Delaware Tech training facility. The program included a summer internship as well. Students who completed the program received certifications in manufacturing logistics and production – credentials that would help them get jobs after graduation – as well as 12 to 15 credits toward an engineering technology associate’s degree at Delaware Tech.

At the same time, William Penn instituted its culinary program – dropping a family and consumer science curriculum that emphasized home cooking and replacing with one designed to prepare students for work in the restaurant and catering industries.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Students in the agriculture and culinary pathways at William Penn High School relax on a tractor while taking a break from work at Penn Farm.

Meanwhile, the Trustees of the New Castle Common had begun a revitalization of the historic Penn Farm, adjacent to the high school, and reached an agreement with the district to grow crops on a portion of the farm. That bolstered William Penn’s agricultural and culinary pathways – as students not only worked on the farm but also brought some of the crops to the high school, where they became staples not only on the cafeteria menu but also in the Bistro staffed by the culinary students.

“Other schools don’t have what we do here,” said Brandon Villicana, a senior agriculture student gaining work-study experience at Penn Farm. “They have to go on field trips to get this experience.”

Working on the farm heightens her knowledge of the foods she prepares in her culinary classes, junior Kaylynne Ruiz says.

The Penn Farm experience also shows the importance of teamwork, which is also an essential in her planned culinary career, junior Kimberly Olivera says.

Senior Alex Rodriguez says he likes the hands-on nature of the Penn Farm agriculture class – 15 to 20 minutes in the classroom to explain what needs to be done and an hour or so in the fields to accomplish the tasks.

After Erskine became principal and Pathways continued to grow, the district needed to redouble its efforts to find employment partners for the work-study portion of the program. It moved Clayton Washington, a veteran counselor, into a new role as coordinator of work-based learning, serving not only William Penn but also its middle schools and the Wallace Wallin School, a program for special needs students.

Washington gets out into the community, meeting business owners and supervisors and inviting them back to the schools so they get a better understanding of what the district is doing. “Employers want to help. They’re more than willing to get involved. They see students as their future workforce,” he says.

But there’s a lot of work involved in getting these internships set up. “The challenge we face is saying yes to the opportunities for kids,” Menzer says. It can take a half-dozen meetings, sometimes more, plus a lot of paperwork, to set up a work-study for a handful of students.

Students have to be placed on payrolls, their work hours can’t conflict with their school schedules, they need transportation to the job site, the type of work they do must complement what they’re learning in school and it must also conform to the standards of the business and any applicable state and federal workplace laws.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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