COVID-19 is causing severe disruptions to American life. At the start of the 20th century, America faced another set of dramatic disruptions. Those were due to rapid urbanization and advanced industrialization, requiring more and different jobs for which Americans were unprepared educationally.
Between 1910 and 1940, a grassroots endeavor responded to that challenge with an effort called the “high school movement,” producing a “a spectacular educational transformation.” Enrollment of 18-year-olds grew from 19 percent to 71 percent while graduation rates rose from 9 percent to more than 50 percent. This boosted the U.S. to the forefront of educational achievement in the world.
Today, a merry band of local civic leaders that I dub evasive entrepreneurs are creating in their communities a new high school movement responding to today’s challenges. They’re using local organizations, enterprises, and other resources to create inventive approaches that prepare young people to live, work, and compete as responsible citizens in their communities.
These programs produce school and community career pathways that integrate schools and students with local employers and work. They bypass the limits of the current K-12 system’s conventional approach that’s disconnected from employers, work, and careers.
This approach is an example of what Robert Bellah described as one understanding Americans have of politics: local civic engagement supporting collective action for the common good. It also fosters opportunity pluralism, promoting alternatives to the “bachelor’s degree or bust” mindset that characterizes so much of education today.
A FRAMEWORK FOR CIVIC SUCCESS
My analysis has identified four key program elements that characterize this collective civic action to solve local career and workforce education problems.
First, credentials that pay. Some of these rograms have a sequenced academic curriculum, requirements aligned with labor-market needs, and a timeline that guides participants through the program. Young people leave the program with training and a recognized career credential that provides them with a decent income.
In Indianapolis, venture funding with support from philanthropy created Kenzie Academy, a technology and apprenticeship program for students, including high school graduates, formerly incarcerated individuals, and those with master’s degrees seeking new careers. Students apprentice in Kenzie Studio, a consulting affiliate. Students have income-share agreements that make the $24,000-a-year program accessible, delaying tuition payment until they have a job paying at least $40,000. Kenzie partners with Butler University so students can receive a credential from both organizations.
Second, a civic compact among multiple participants. Written community agreements—a civic compact—describe roles and responsibilities and include a program budget. The program partners—schools, other educational and community institutions, government agencies, etc.—have a management and governance structure with access to influential individuals needed for program success.
In New Orleans, the civic partnership YouthForce NOLA works with open-enrollment charter high schools, offering career exposure and work experiences, soft-skills training, coaching for students, and paid internships for seniors. This is followed by 90 hours of work placement in a career pathway where opportunities include biology and health sciences, digital media and IT, and architecture and water management. The program has an education component for parents about the career pathways available to their children. This civic collaborative has 17 funders; a steering committee of 12; and 11 other civic leaders who serve as board members.
Third, introduction to careers and on-site work experience. This begins as early as middle school with activities like speakers and field trips. High school involves work placement, including mentorships, internships, and actual work, with this work-based learning integrated with classroom instruction. This helps young people understand career labor-market demands.
Cristo Rey is a network of thirty-five Catholic high schools in twenty-two states that integrates four years of academics with work experience through its Corporate Work Study Program. This separate non-profit placement service works with nonprofits and private enterprise to place students five days a month in entry-level jobs with over 3,400 partners. Students—forty percent not Catholic and 98 percent minority—earn 60 percent of tuition through employment, with 30 percent from philanthropic sources and 10 percent from a family contribution of $1,000 (on average).
Fourth, involvement of employers, trade associations, and local organizations. All the examples presented here have the participation of employers and trade associations who help define program standards, skills, and competencies that participants need for a certificate and employment. They also provide paid internships and apprenticeships, help assess workforce readiness, and have other organizations that assist with convening, organizing, and planning functions, in addition to providing work-placement and social services for participants and their families. These include community foundations, community colleges, chambers of commerce, private-industry councils, the Salvation Army, and United Way.
The evasive civic entrepreneurs creating these programs are using their ingenuity and imagination to organize local organizations and other resources in new ways to prepare young people for college and careers. They are creating a new high school movement.
The learning and networking central to these programs provide young people with the knowledge and connections—social capital—needed to pursue opportunity. This approach to opportunity is best described as opportunity pluralism since individuals are offered many different pathways to work and career through education, training, and credentialing that don’t point narrowly to only one outcome.
These programs also help young people develop an occupational identity and vocational self. Developing oneself in an occupation as a worker within the broader vocational sense of one’s abilities, personality, and values is an important foundation for adult success and a lifetime of opportunity.
Practically, they exemplify “faster and cheaper” pathways to jobs and careers than is typical in traditional education settings.
This new high school movement led by local evasive entrepreneurs affirms four value propositions for educating young people.
First, relationships and networks are key to accessing opportunity.
Second, local civic action and community institutions are important partners in K-12 school efforts to prepare young people for a prosperous future.
Third, localism in solving a pressing community issues like preparing young people for adult success links all the participants to a civic purpose larger than any one they can pursue on their own.
Finally, preparing for adult life, work, and citizenship includes cultivating an occupational identify and vocational self that places them on a trajectory to economic and social well-being and informed citizenship.
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