High School Has Changed Since You Were There

Project Director of the Statewide Career Pathways: School to College Articulation Project

Do you ever look at your students and wonder what their high school experience was like? When was the last time you set foot on a high school campus? If you are like me, it may have been quite awhile, and in many cases, things have changed. As the population of our colleges is increasingly younger and as we learn that direct college going after high school usually yields better student success, we as college faculty benefit from knowing where our students come from.

In addition, the need for us to interact with secondary teachers grows, as more initiatives encourage or require inter-segmental partnerships.

I took a peek into one of today's high schools, and I was surprised at what I found.

In January I visited a high school career academy program at Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove,just outside Sacramento. The visit was planned by an organization called ConnectEd (http://www.connectedcalifornia.org) to give policy makers a chance to see an example of the new generation of educating for careers. In this case, it was a "school within a school" -a program called The Manufacturing Production Technology Academy, which enrolls a cohort of the schools' pupils. While I was familiar with the principles behind the new career academies, I must confess that before I saw the school and students in action, I had some inaccurate expectations.

I expected that the students in this program only would be planning for a career in manufacturing technology. I do not have statistics, but from several students I met, their plans for college majors are varied, including business, engineering and science. So the theme of manufacturing technology served as a vehicle for delivering the curriculum but not as a tracking device to narrow opportunities. I saw that their core general education courses (which the K-12 system calls "academics") include lessons from the workplace. So in the English course, one assignment was to develop a business plan for a product the students had developed, while in a mathematics course, the students were measuring and creating a cardboard box to the right specifications for shipping their products. In short, their core curriculum was imbedded in career-focused or workplace applications and the teachers worked across disciplines to prepare appropriate lessons, which are also aligned with the K-12 standards. I was especially impressed that this school developed a relationship with the United Cerebral Palsy organization, and the students had to design and produce manipulative toys (e.g. a maze, a puzzle) that later would be donated to the nonprofit for use in rehabilitation activities with clients. The science curriculum used the disease cerebral palsy as a means to teach fundamentals of biology in a context.

I recall when I taught in a high school at the start of my career, the "vocational" or "occupational" classes were separate programs, and not integrated with the other courses. Today, there is a growing recognition that all students need both a strong foundation in reading, science, mathematics, writing, history etc. as well as an introduction to the world of work and that all those subjects can be taught within a context and with workplace relevance.

The philosophy of ConnectEd and schools like Laguna Hills is that high school should prepare students both for the workplace and for college rather than either/or.

They give students options, what they call "multiple pathways." According to ConnectEd, programs such as these have four components: 1) An academic core that meets the "a-g" eligibility requirements; 2) a technical core of four or more courses providing knowledge and skills; 3) work-based learning opportunities; and 4) support services, including supplemental instruction.

Before the visit, I wasn't sure what the students' postsecondary plans were. What I learned was that up to 90% will attend community colleges, universities or a technical school. This school has seen greatly improved student attendance, GPA and graduation rates. I spoke to a number of students personally and watched several give presentations and I was very impressed with their enthusiasm, clarity and sense of direction.

While not all schools are like Laguna Creek High School, it represents a growing movement within K-12 to integrate curriculum. According to ConnectEd, "There are many models. The most common is a career academy, either one of the 290 California Partnership Academies or one of about 300 additional career academies currently operating in California's high schools. Other examples include career pathways, career/industry majors, magnet schools, and small themed high schools or small learning communities." (http://www.connectedcalifornia.org).

As we know, today's drop-out rate is staggering, with up to a third of the students never completing high school. The new initiatives in many California schools aim to reverse the trend.

I now have seen first hand that the way vocational curriculum was delivered in the past is not what is being done today, and that the new preferred term "Career, Technical Education" (CTE) which implies an integrated curriculum, is a more appropriate term.