The current K–12 school challenge under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the knowledge, skills, and disposition to succeed in postsecondary education or a career. This is a big challenge, as students do not come to school with the same experiences and aspirations.

Teachers and administrators work diligently to ensure success for students at their school; however, success can be defined differently whether students attend technical school or college, join the military, or enter the workforce. Schools must have standards that are designed to provide readiness for all four paths.

Career academies—small learning communities that focus the core curriculum around a career theme—are one way schools can prepare students. While states have caught on to the academy movement that has been aided by ESSA legislation with the integration of academics with career and technical education (CTE), some individual schools and districts have not yet developed academies.

How can administrators provide these meaningful experiences for students without having fully developed academies? A little creative thinking goes a long way. In the Berkeley County School District in South Carolina, we found a way to provide meaningful experiences to the students as well as the unemployed adult community.

In Berkeley County, economic growth has created a qualified workforce deficit, and local technical schools and universities are aiding in the effort to supply that need for proficient talent. However, high school programs can also create a workforce pipeline that benefits employers, students, and communities at large.

The first branded academy program in Berkeley County came from the most unlikely company—a local car dealership. Think about it: Car dealerships often have finance departments, marketing, and advertising. We did not partner because of automotive technology (which we didn’t have at my last high school)—we partnered for a business academy. Be creative, and don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. There are many possibilities.

Follow these eight steps to create meaningful experiences for your students, teachers, and communities.

1. Check Out the Market Needs in Your Area

Local governments and chambers of commerce produce job growth expectation reports (see Figure 1 above). Once you know the needs in your community, take a look at the programs you offer in your school. Do your programs benefit the growing demands in your community? Do the programs match students’ individual graduation plans (IGPs) and what students want to do when they grow up? If so, consider building meaningful partnerships that benefit all involved. Have deep conversations with your local chamber discussing the occupational outlook in your area or region, which can directly impact courses and programs. Too often programs exist because of history, not because of need or student requests. In one Berkeley County School, the horticulture program was transitioned to a wildlife/natural resource management focus based on student IGPs and industry need. The program that was once faltering is now robust.

2. Network With Neighboring Employers

As a school principal, networking with chamber representatives as well as with local civic organizations such as the Exchange Club and the Rotary Club can provide invaluable resources for a school. Give presentations to these clubs on school goals and programs that provide experiences through CTE courses to show how your school can meet the growing needs of businesses. In doing this, companies can better understand your vision and will reach out to offer assistance.

However, don’t just limit yourself to larger organizations. Small businesses are challenged to find the employees they need because bigger businesses secure a lot of the talent pool. Those small businesses can make the best partners. For example, with the wildlife and natural resource program mentioned above, the school partners with a local shelter for abused and abandoned boys. The property surrounding the shelter is expansive and only a few miles from the school. The shelter administrators helped write a grant through a local organization to purchase GPS mapping equipment. In turn, high school students now use the property as their outdoor lab and map the property for the owners. This mapping has assisted in land development to include the addition of a horse rescue operation.

3. Request Meetings

Businesses will often cite the lack of qualified skills in recent graduates for their workforce needs, while schools point to a lack of business support in building awareness of those skills. The best way to fix something is to do something about it. Make the calls and request the meetings. Brainstorm businesses that fit your programs. You’ll be surprised by what you find.

In Berkeley County Schools, a smaller home health care business reached out through the aforementioned networking efforts. The owner phoned and asked whether schools could help with her workforce needs through a partnership. She simply could not get enough home health providers, particularly in rural areas. Only through meetings and truly defining the problem can you derive a solution.

4. Plan the Process

During the first meeting with this small business in Berkeley County, the suggestion was made that the partnership not be with the school closest to her, but with the schools in the rural areas needing the service. One of the two high schools in the area of need jumped at the chance to provide jobs to students and community members. They developed the following steps:

  • Develop a curriculum that will allow potential employees to pass the skills assessment needed to get the job. With home health, these included skills such as using a Hoyer Lift, taking vitals, etc.
  • Create an after-school program for high school students in the health sciences programs as well as adults seeking employment in those communities.
  • Establish the timeline and instructional time needed for the course (twice a week, 2.5 hours/day).
  • Secure transportation, if needed.
  • Host an information night for parents and students who might be interested.
  • Secure funding.
  • Advertise.

5. Execute the Plan

All of the details were agreed upon, including financing the program. Generally, businesses are willing to financially support a program if they feel the desired outcome will be achieved. However, this program used backing from multiple sources, including adult education funding, CTE funding, and business sponsorships. These funds paid for supplies and the teachers’ salaries.

At the information night, parents showed up with their students. From that initial meeting, two adults were hired on the spot because they had the experience and skills necessary for the job. These adults hadn’t had the opportunity or circumstances to find these jobs. Also, several students were very interested in the program because it was a job close to home. These students had already expressed interest in the field because they were enrolled in health science courses.

Twelve students enrolled in the eight-week course. Keeping the pilot manageable was important. At the end of the eight-week course, students were given a skills assessment from the employer. Those who passed were offered employment at the age of 18. Adult learners were taught separately from the high school students for liability purposes. Working with adult education also supported implementing some basic English and math curriculum for adult learners—a requirement for participation.

6. Monitor the Implementation

Invite the business owner and school officials to see the program in action. This creates an air of excitement and drives continued interest throughout the operation and motivates students to finish the curriculum. Additionally, you will generate other business interest in your programs through publicity.

7. Celebrate the Successes

At the end of the eight-week course, all 12 students passed the skills assessment. The business owner was thrilled with the results! Because some of the students were not yet 18, they couldn’t be hired to work in the field alone. So, the business owner developed a paid mentoring program for those students to work alongside another home health provider until the student turned 18. This was an amazing opportunity for students, and she wanted to keep their interest in home health.

We celebrated the program in several ways:

  • Students and their parents were invited to participate in a celebration at the school.
  • The results of the program were recognized at a board meeting.
  • The program was highlighted in publications including a newsletter, webpage, newspaper, etc.

Because of the success and the public recognition, another business called about help with workforce development and partnership with the district’s high schools. In fact, the calls continue. The news spread that the school was working to support the community as a whole, which earned the principal a lot of goodwill in community outreach.

8. Replicate the Program

Because the program’s curriculum found success, the owner was willing to fully fund the next eight-week course. The beauty of this type of program is that it can be replicated at any high school that has the facilities, teachers, and desire to make it happen. In essence, these types of programs are mobile.

Programs can be developed to work within the regular school hours for high school students or after school for any student or community member. Students receive excellent training and hands-on experiences through the employment opportunities and internships that are created.

These types of programs can be adapted to fit any participating business. Though academies may offer more integration with the core, which is ideal, programs such as the described workforce development program have great value and merit. Districts and schools that do not have academies can still garner meaningful partnerships and experiences for students in college and career preparedness while supporting the needs of local businesses.

Power in Partnerships

Whether you have fully developed career academies or programs such as the one described in this article, it is imperative that educators pursue these types of opportunities. As a building-level principal, I worked with CTE teachers and businesses to create academies and stand-alone programs. No business was too big or too small to ask for a partnership of some sort. Remember, partnership in this context does not equate to a monetary donation. Partnership equates to real, hands-on experiences, employment training, and opportunities for students. Leave no stone unturned for the sake of your kids.

Lee A. Westberry is the program coordinator for the Zucker Family School of Education and assistant professor of educational leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, SC.

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Leadership Dimension: Relationships

Principals can directly build relationships with families and community organizations to identify their interests and assets. As a school leader, you can build relationships with these strategies:

  • Invite guest speakers, including parents, community members, and business people. This strategy can be mutually beneficial when it enables students to learn about an industry or career path and speakers to recruit pipeline interest for their industry or businesses.
  • Partner with local organizations on joint projects or programs. In particular, reaching out to local businesses and higher education institutions can provide new career and academic options for students.

Relationships is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.← #EdTech: October 2019Letter From the Executive Director: October 2019 →