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Growing Career Pathways program makes its mark on First State schools

Delaware Public Media

"College and Career Ready" is a mantra heard often from Delaware education officials.  And one effort to address the “career” part of that equation is the state's Career Pathways program.

The program has seen steady growth in just under 5 years. Contributor Larry Nagengast looks at that growth and the program's impact to date.

With the addition of six new course sequences this year, Delaware’s public schools are now offering 25 Career Pathways, serving about 15,000 students, and bringing its target – serving 20,000 students, or one-half of the state’s public high school population – in reach for the 2020-21 school year.

Pathways, launched in 2015, has experienced steady growth – both in enrollment and programming – as it has developed into a model for simultaneously giving students hands-on career preparation and the opportunity to earn college credits before receiving their high school diplomas.

Pathways is part of the Boston-based Jobs for the Future network, consisting of similar city, state and regional programs operating in15 states. The goal of these programs, according to the organization’s leader, Robert B. Schwartz, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is to unite educators, employers and governments to create support systems so that “by the time they reach their early 20s, every young adult will be equipped with the education and experience he or she needs to lead a successful life as an adult.”

Since Delaware’s first Pathways graduates completed high school last spring, there’s no data available yet on how many have entered the work force or entered college, but Schwartz sees enough progress to call Delaware “the poster child for Pathways nationally.”

“Delaware is distinctive,” Schwartz says. “It put together a coalition that cut across agencies – public, private and nonprofit. In most states, it’s a government activity only.”

Credit Delaware Public Media
Then-Gov. Jack Markell visits a Career Pathways classroom at Polytech High School on 2015 as he rolled out the program

Former Gov. Jack Markell brought together business, government and education leaders in 2014 to start planning the Pathways program and he announced its creation during his 2015 State of the State address.

“Workforce development. A farm system for talent. It checks all the boxes. It’s hard to find a stakeholder group that can’t believe in the message,” says businessman Ernie Dianastasis, head of the Vision Coalition, a business-oriented school reform group.

The Pathways strategic plan set five broad goals, and put a different stakeholder group in charge of each one. The state Department of Education would build a career preparation curriculum that aligned with the state and regional economies. Delaware Technical Community College would develop and sustain work-based learning experiences for students in grades 7-14. The state Department of Labor would develop the data to determine desired programming. The United Way of Delaware and Rodel, the education-oriented foundation, would seek non-governmental financial support and the Delaware Workforce Development Board, business advisors to the Department of Labor, would encourage businesses to support the program by providing internships, work-study jobs, mentoring and other assistance.

Pathways offers something valuable to each of its stakeholder groups. For the education system, it’s the prospect of making learning more work-relevant to students who have been turned off by the traditional classroom setting. For the student, it’s the chance to earn an industry-recognized certification in his or her chosen field, as well as college credits, while earning a high school diploma. For businesses, it’s the creation of an employment pipeline, with the opportunity to shape a curriculum that makes those future employees job-ready. For the state, it’s an economic development engine, creating a pool of workers to meet current employers’ demands and to attract new businesses into the state.

"Delaware is distinctive. It put together a coalition that cut across agencies - public, private and nonprofit. In most states, it's a government activity only." -Robert B. Schwartz, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The first pathways to launch were among those identified by Department of Labor as related to industries that had strong growth prospects and would offer middle-class wages to workers who had a high school education plus a professional certification but not a college degree. Some choices were obvious: culinary and hospitality, which employs about 10 percent of Delaware’s working population; finance, with JPMorganChase, Citibank, Barclay’s and Capital One, among others, having significant operations in the state; health sciences and information technology, both with anticipated double-digit job growth through 2024. Also in the mix: agriculture, engineering, manufacturing, energy, environmental science and K-12 teaching.

The typical Pathways curriculum, according to Luke Rhine, chief of career and technical education in the Department of Education, includes three years of classes in the subject area, with one or more of these classes providing college credit through a dual-enrollment arrangement with Delaware Tech. A paid work-study or internship with a supporting business, either in senior year or in the summer between junior and senior year, is also part of the package. Schools often broaden the Pathway, he says, by adding a fourth year of classes and by building a “program of study,” adding related classes to the student’s schedule.

In developing Pathways, the state has attempted to achieve a balance between standardization and flexibility. In some areas, the state adopted a nationally recognized curriculum. For the culinary pathway, it uses the ProStart curriculum developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. For engineering and biomedical sciences, it uses the activity-, project- and problem-based curriculum developed by Project Lead The Way, a national leader in developing learning packages in the STEM fields.

For others, agriculture, for example, it built upon the curriculum established at the schools that already offered these programs. In fields where there was no established curriculum, the state has begun developing industry councils comprised of business owners and managers who identify the skills needed and then work with the education community to design a curriculum that focuses on those skills. Three industry councils – for health care, information technology, and engineering, manufacturing and energy – are up and running under Delaware Tech’s leadership. Units for construction trades, banking and finance, hospitality, business and education and arts and media are scheduled to be phased in by the end of 2021.

With each pathway, “we established a common foundation for knowledge and skills – benchmarked to education standards and employer needs,” Rhine says. Gone are the days when 11 districts offered culinary programs, and no two were alike.

Building Pathways and making the programming sustainable is not without its challenges. While the state’s vocational-technical school districts have had years of experience working identifying employers for co-op work programs, the traditional K-12 districts did not. In addition, for many of the Pathways fields, employers were used to hiring students from college, not high school, for work-study positions. Also, some employers expressed reluctance to take on students who lacked the so-called “soft skills” – good communications, ability to get along with coworkers and the public, punctuality, proper attire and grooming – needed for success in the business environment.

Overcoming these complications would require both educators and business leaders to think in new ways and break some of their old molds.

At the school district level, personal contact with owners of small businesses is often a key to arranging work-based learning experience. “We started making connections. It’s still a small community feel,” says Matt Burrows, superintendent of the Appoquinimink School District in rapidly growing lower New Castle County. “Our local businessmen are sending their kids and their grandkids to our schools. One connection leads to three or four.”

"We can't send them off into the corporate world until they're prepared. We're trying to walk what we talk." - United Way president and CEO Michelle Taylor.

Delaware Tech has a small unit of specialists working to build business partnerships but Schwartz, the Jobs for the Future expert, says programs in other states have larger teams working in this capacity.

To address the soft skills issue, Delaware Tech and Goodwill Industries, which serves as Pathways’ conduit to business human resources departments, encouraged schools to develop a pilot class on these topics that is being introduced this year.

In addition, United Way of Delaware provides summer training in this area to the high school students it hires to do filing, research and other basic office work. “We can’t send them off into the corporate world until they’re prepared,” says Michelle Taylor, United Way’s president and CEO. “We’re trying to walk what we talk,” she adds, saying she wants to see other organizations that hire youth as summer workers put an emphasis on development of good work habits.

Gary Stockbridge, the Delmarva Power president and chairman of the Workforce Development Board, says it’s too early to tell whether Pathways is making significant progress toward its long-term goals. On the front end, he says, it’s clear that schools are doing well in curriculum development and finding jobs for their students. But the program is still scaling up, so success will depend on how well Delaware Tech does in bringing more businesses willing to provide students with job opportunities.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in a few years,” says Dianastasis, the Vision Coalition chair, “but we need another three to five years of data gathering to better assess our outcomes.”

“Pathways professionalizes what we do,” says Xavier Teixido, owner of the Harry’s Hospitality Group restaurant and catering business and a past chairman of both the National Restaurant Association and its Educational Foundation. “Students realize that if you’re going to be in this field, you’re going to have to learn science and math, and you’re going to have to learn to work with others. It’s all very positive.”

Pathways Growth by Year

Pathways programs now operate in 42 high schools in all 19 school districts (16 comprehensive and three vocational-technical), eight charter schools and two schools for at-risk youths operated by the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families.   The computer science pathway is the most widely available, offered at 22 schools; next come culinary and hospitality management and the K-12 teacher academy, at 18 each; then finance and engineering, at 15 each.

Here’s a year-by-year look:

2015-16: 1,850 students in five pathways: culinary, computer science, advanced manufacturing, biomedical sciences and engineering.

2016-17: 5,000 students in 11 pathways; finance, a K-12 teacher academy, allied health, nurse assisting, Cisco networking and manufacturing engineering technology added.

2017-18: 8,300 students in 13 pathways; environmental sciences and natural resources added.

2018-19: 12,000 students in 19 pathways; agricultural power and engineering, agricultural structures and engineering, architectural engineering and structures, business information management, early childhood teaching academy, and public and community health adde.

2019-20: 15,000 students projected in 25 pathways; animal science, natural resources, plant science, digital communication, automotive technology and hospitality management added.

2020-21: up to 20,000 students projected in 26 pathways; marketing to be added.

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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