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Assessing Delaware Pathways work to prep high school students for college and future careers

Students explain their programs at April's Delaware Pathways conference in Newark
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Students explain their programs at April's Delaware Pathways conference in Newark.

Eight years ago, former Gov. Jack Markell launched a program called ‘Pathways to Prosperity’ – designed to give high school students specialized instruction and hands-on training in specific fields that led to industry-recognized certificates or college credits.

That program – now known as ‘Delaware Pathways’ – has grown and those involved reflected on its progress at a recent conference.

Contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look this week at the program’s growth and what’s ahead.

Contributor Larry Nagengast joins Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne to discuss Delaware Pathways

Building a program from ground zero to participation by 71 percent of the state’s middle and high school students in less than eight years is cause for celebration, but attendees at the annual Delaware Pathways conference learned that there’s still much more to do.

More than 47,000 students are now enrolled in Pathways programs, taking classes designed to lead them into potentially rewarding career fields, state Secretary of Education Mark Holodick said as he opened the half-day conference at the University of Delaware. The April 21 event drew more than 200 attendees, primarily educators and leaders in businesses and nonprofit organizations affiliated with Pathways.

Student participation will continue to grow, Holodick said, in part because of the state’s $1 million investment in pilot programs that will start this fall at the middle school level. Those programs aim to give students an earlier start in thinking about careers and what they will need to study in high school to attain their long-term goals.

Pathways is a collaborative effort among the education, government and business sectors to offer a curriculum that spans middle and high school to help ensure students become productive employees in growth professions after graduation. Delaware schools offer more than 20 pathways in areas like business and finance, health sciences, education, engineering and technology, hospitality and agriculture. Available pathways vary from school to school, but all offer students paid on-the-job training and the opportunity to earn college credits or professional certifications before they graduate from high school.

“The path is not the same for every young person,” Holodick said. “Students must be aware of their options and be prepared to take the next step.”

But, as the conference showed, education leaders, the business community and researchers all have roles to play in Pathways’ continuing growth.

While students filled the lobby of Clayton Hall with displays demonstrating how participation in various Pathways were pointing them toward their careers in education, agriculture, business, hospitality and technology, adults split up and headed into smaller meeting rooms to discuss the program’s needs and challenges. Topics they discussed included future directions in Delaware’s workforce, diversifying the educator workforce, smoothing the transition from high school to college or a career, and retaining and attracting employers who provide students with work-based learning.

“The path is not the same for every young person. Students must be aware of their options and be prepared to take the next step.”

Mark Holodick, State Secretary of Education

One ongoing concern is understanding how participating in Pathways has impacted students who have completed the program. Only in the last two or three years has the number of graduates become large enough to meaningfully measure outcomes in the transition out of high school but it is still too early to assess post-college, early-career accomplishments.

During one of the small group sessions, specialists from RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, presented preliminary results from their survey of students who completed a Pathways program in 2022.

Sandra Staklis, a senior research education analyst for RTI, said the firm is conducting the survey in three steps: securing contact information from the students just before graduation, following up on their status in late 2022 and asking more detailed questions of the same group later this year. A similar process will be used to survey 2023 graduates, she said.

RTI attempted to contact 547 2022 graduates and received replies from 378, a 69 percent response rate.

The six-month follow-up found that 72 percent of the graduates surveyed were enrolled in higher education programs, and about half of that group was holding down a job as well. Another 22 percent of the graduates were employed but not enrolled in a postsecondary program. About 90 percent of those surveyed were still residing in Delaware six months after graduation.

Most of the graduates who had jobs were working in some form of customer service – not surprising for individuals just entering the workforce, Staklis said.

The next phase of the survey, she said, will look at the relationships between Pathways studies and the graduates’ current employment or higher education.

Staklis acknowledged, however, that it will take a longer time frame, like five years after completing high school, for a survey to evaluate the success of Pathways in pointing participants to meaningful careers.

On the employment/career training front, Pathways faces a dual challenge as it strives to integrate education with workforce development. The goal is to identify industries with strong growth prospects in Delaware that would offer jobs with sufficient compensation to support a middle-class lifestyle. Pathways’ planners – from the state Department of Education and Department of Labor, supported by the public-private Delaware Workforce Development Board – have succeeded with some fairly obvious choices, like culinary and hospitality, health sciences, finance and information technology.

However, while businesses in some sectors – like restaurants – are accustomed to giving high school students on-the-job training, others – like finance and IT – typically offer internship opportunities only to college students.

Charles Madden, director of existing businesses and talent for the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the public-private organization charged with bringing new businesses to the state and encouraging existing ones to expand, attempted to address some of these issues in another small group session.

“We’re looking for a pipeline of talent,” he said, and that works well for businesses with a foothold in Delaware, but it can be challenging to anticipate the needs of companies that have yet to locate in the state.

 Former Gov. Jack Markell visiting one of the state's initial Pathways programs for engineering at Polytech High School in 2015.
Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media
Former Gov. Jack Markell visiting one of the state's initial Pathways programs for engineering at Polytech High School in 2015.

After the conference, Colleen Morrone, president and CEO of Goodwill of Delaware and Delaware County, said she believes Pathways’ greatest challenge is to secure “greater involvement from the business community, building the same level of knowledge and excitement felt by educators, state departments and community-based organizations.”

Mark Baxter, senior program director at Rodel, the education-centered nonprofit that has been involved with Pathways since its inception, accented Morrone’s view. He emphasized a need to “increase student access to advanced course opportunities, work-based learning experiences and apprenticeships.”

Dan Cruce, chief operating officer of United Way of Delaware, another Pathways partner, said he believes Pathways is working toward creating a model that opens fresh opportunities for all students, especially those that have historically been overlooked and underrepresented. Achieving that goal, however, will require crossing a generational bridge. “Our youth are dynamic individuals different from most of the adults that are planning for their future,” he said.

“We’re all navigating on a journey toward our success,” said Jon Wickert, director of career and technical education at the Department of Education. “We have to empower students to navigate that journey. It has to be meaningful to them.”

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