Morgan Smith
Principal, Marina High School
Robert McCarthy
Principal, Central Falls High School
Cammie Knapp
Principal, Corvallis High School

When it comes to life right after high school, students can choose from several paths that lead to success—not just one. To learn how school leaders are helping students find the college or career path that works best for them, Principal Leadership contacted Cammie Knapp, the principal of Corvallis High School in Corvallis, MT, and the 2023 Montana Principal of the Year; Robert McCarthy, the principal of Central Falls High School in Central Falls, RI, and the 2023 Rhode Island Principal of the Year; and Morgan Smith, EdD, the principal of Marina High School in Huntington Beach, CA, and the 2023 California Principal of the Year.

Principal Leadership: At your school what does preparation for college and career look like?

At Marina High School, where Morgan Smith is principal, students receive a military challenge coin during a ceremony where they commit to enlisting in the military or attending a military school or program right after high school. PHOTO COURTESY OF MORGAN SMITH

Smith: We’re a school with a healthy balance of college and career options. We have 10 career pathways for students, everything from hot metals, which includes welding and construction, to culinary arts, to graphic design, among other areas. From an early stage, we encourage our students to find their niche and to experiment with it all. We try to make connections to what we do in the classroom to the real world. Next year, we’ll kick off our first ROTC program in the district. We’re pretty excited about that.

Knapp: We offer a college planning course for our seniors during their first semester. It’s geared toward college exploration as well as scholarships. Our sophomores and juniors participate in break-out sessions where we strategically have them do some ACT prep but at the same time learn about job interview skills and resumes. We also expose students to career connections within our community such as health care and military service. And we have pathways in construction, agriculture, outdoor recreation, and service industries. One of the things that we did find in the past couple of years is we were doing all of this for our seniors. But really the time for kids to start that college exploration process is really during their junior year. So, we did add a second semester course just for our juniors which is a college career course. We also have quite a few dual enrollment courses with Missoula College. And, in the state of Montana during a week in October, we have college application week when every student who applies to a college in the state of Montana gets a free application. It’s another motivator for students to consider college as an option.

McCarthy: Central Falls is primarily an immigrant community with newcomers mostly from Central America. About 85% of our students speak a language other than English at home. We have a lot of students who are first-generation high school graduates and first-generation college students. We offer college access programs, such as Onward We Learn, Upward Bound, and Educational Talent Search. And we have a partnership with Rhode Island College called Anchor to Success where any student with a 2.5 GPA at the end of their junior year is guaranteed automatic enrollment in Rhode Island College upon graduation and maintenance of that GPA. During senior year of high school, we try to ensure our students visit a college campus to see what it’s like. Because for most of our families, college is a relatively new experience. We also partner with Rhode Island College so students can earn college credit in five different courses. And we offer five CTE pathways. Our biggest challenge and growth area, though, is how can we create those pathways for our newcomer students? They are 16 or 17 years old and a lot of times they have gaps in their learning. A real incentive for all our students is that Rhode Island offers free community college, the Rhode Island Promise, which is also open to undocumented students.

Principal Leadership: How have these programs changed over time and why?

Smith: In our district in Southern California, community colleges have definitely moved toward dual enrollment opportunities. We’re trying to get kids matched with college recruitment planning a lot earlier than we’ve normally been used to. So, we offer a summer course for all of our incoming freshmen, and it’s a dual enrollment course. It’s this idea of exposure where kids can see themselves in a career or college opportunity and see their success. For California there’s been a big shift in making sure all courses meet a certain college prep requirement. In our state, if students go through the A through G track, which is California’s college prep requirement, you’re doing four years of math instead of three years and you’re taking higher-level science. We try to incentivize academics as much as possible, but some students are more interested in CTE. Schools in our state have received an allotment of funding for that. So, if I find a community member or a teacher that has that kind of experience then we can match them in a pathway and create that opportunity for our students. We have trade unions that come in and speak to our kids about the journeyman pathway. Ten years ago, at the high-school level, we pushed every kid to try Advanced Placement. In my last high school, the AP drive was such that students were counting how many AP classes they were taking and making their high school resumes insane. Now, there’s more of a call for balance and mental health and for students to find something that makes them happy.

Principal Robert McCarthy with students in front of a college acceptance wall at Central Falls High School. The sign to the right lists the school’s CTE classes. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT MCCARTHY

Knapp: I agree with Morgan. There is more exploration. One of the things we’ve seen a huge difference in is our local businesses are coming to us and saying we need these kids. For example, our local hospital asked how they could train students to be certified nursing assistants and EMTs. We partnered with the hospital, which is now offering a course with a registered nurse, who received teaching certification from the state. We have local community members asking for our help in filling open positions, which is a huge win-win situation for our kids. They can live with their parents until they get on their feet and find some success.

During senior year of high school, we try to ensure our students visit a college campus to see what it’s like. Because for most of our families, college is a relatively new experience.

—Robert McCarthy

McCarthy: The proliferation of CTE opportunities has not only provided choices for kids within our school but in Rhode Island, students can attend other schools if those schools offer a program not offered in their local high school. This opportunity for students to pursue these types of pathways academically and/or occupationally is something that has definitely changed even before the pandemic. One thing the Rhode Island Department of Education is really focusing on is ensuring students have individual learning plans that begin in middle school. In general, those career conversations are happening earlier. Reflecting on my own 14-year-old self, I had no idea what I wanted to do other than go out and run around and have fun with my friends. We have to balance this notion that you have opportunities, and yes, you do have to start thinking about these types of things. But at the same time if you’re not sure what you want to do that’s perfectly acceptable.

Principal Leadership: What’s the breakdown of students at your school entering the workforce right after college or pursuing a four-year degree? And are there shifts in their plans right after
high school?

Smith: Overall, we’ve seen a huge boost in community college numbers right out of high school. We have 55% of our students attending community college. I attribute that in part to the dual enrollment class that our freshmen take. We only keep track of our students two years after high school, so we don’t know if community college students are taking their associate degree and going into the workforce or pursuing higher-level education. Right out of high school, only about 5% of our students enter directly into the workforce. Another smaller percentage enter the military. By and large, our graduates attend community college, state colleges and universities, and private institutions.

We have local community members asking for our help in filling open positions, which is a huge win-win situation for our kids. They can live with their parents until they get on their feet and find some success.

—Cammie Knapp

Knapp: About 50% of our kids end up going to four-year colleges. But we have 20 to 25% that now attend community college. It used to be about 15%. About 5% of our students enlist in the military, and 10 to 15% directly enter the workforce. It depends upon each graduating class. Some years you have more kids who are more academically motivated. Other years those number fluctuate. We oftentimes have Mormon students who are going off on mission straight out of high school. That’s about 5% of our student body. I think more students are choosing community college because they can still stay at home. You don’t have to worry about rent or room and board. And they get to work in their job that they currently have and are established with.

McCarthy: Certainly, the notion of free community college in Rhode Island has increased the numbers significantly, especially among students who are concerned about finances. They can live at home. Most of our students who are going to four-year schools are staying in Rhode Island or maybe right across the border in Massachusetts primarily for economic reasons. Also, Central Falls is very much a community. Students feel comfortable and supported here. It can be tough to think about leaving a place that you’re familiar with.

Principal Leadership: How is your school making sure students see the connection between their coursework and the world of work? Has that become more important over the years?

Students at Corvallis High School, where Cammie Knapp is principal, work on their welding skills in a welding course with their CTE teacher. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAMMIE KNAPP

Smith: We’re trying to build more of a civic-minded student across California. We have about 70 clubs on campus, and our teachers who have a specific subject area try to be an adviser for a club. For instance, our economics teacher advises a stock trading club. With CTE, you have your clubs for students that are run by students that are in that field of study and they compete with local schools and up and down the state and even at the national level. We’re really trying to make the high school experience richer. In California, we are seeing declining enrollment, so we really have to compete for it. As much as we can enrich the classroom environment and the high school experience with activities, clubs, sports, high interest, we’ve got to do it. Our campus is alive at about 5:30 in the morning and we shut it down at about 10 at night. We want kids to feel like their home is our campus. Teachers have picked up that mantle, too. They’re carrying the weight of wanting to be plugged in to as much as possible and have kids see them as their go-to person. Almost like an extension of their parent, a teacher is their adviser, a coach, just the person to go to when they’re struggling. That’s the shift in emphasis we’ve seen.

Knapp: That’s always the goal of our teachers to provide that relevancy to our kids. If you’re going into the construction realm, you will need to understand geometry. Right now, we’re looking at working on some of our credits. So, if a student is taking a construction class not only could they get a CTE credit, but they could also get a math credit at the same time. We’re making sure they feel like they’re getting something more for their efforts, so they see the bigger picture that goes with it.

We have 10 career pathways for students, everything from hot metals, which includes welding and construction, to culinary arts, to graphic design, among other areas. From an early stage, we encourage our students to find their niche and to experiment with it all.

—Morgan Smith

McCarthy: Relevancy within content areas similar to what Morgan and Cammie said is also a real focus for us. For instance, our math department is looking at the importance of word problems. Not many people particularly enjoy word problems, but they are a great way in math to show relevancy. It’s incumbent upon us as educators to make sure that students do understand why it’s important for them to learn context. Not just in CTE but also in content areas. Morgan talked about our responsibility to create active participants as citizens. We’ve created opportunities for our students to take, for instance, a participatory budgeting class where students have $10,000 to spend on some aspect of our school. They go through a process of talking to all the stakeholders about what would be the best way to use that money to improve the school. Students use that feedback to work out the projects, which students then get to vote on at the end of the semester using the exact same process they would use to vote for elected officials. This is an example of giving students leadership opportunities on issues that are very real to them.