Department of Education Balances Work and College Prep for Connecticut High School Graduates

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In 2017, 70.9 percent of new Connecticut high school graduates enrolled in a college or university, according to the State Department of Education. Nearly 30 percent of Connecticut students joined the workforce with a high school diploma.

In a statement this October, the State Department of Education underscored the need to provide public education that directly meets the needs of both career paths.

“We strongly believe that Connecticut’s K-12 public education system must not only emphasize rigorous, well-rounded academics and citizenship, but also evolve to meet the needs of the state’s economy. In addition to providing pathways to college through demanding academic coursework and dual enrollment opportunities, we acknowledge and embrace the immense potential of K-12 public education to offer career pathways that align to the state’s workforce needs.”

The Advanced Manufacturing Center at Bacon Academy, a public high school in Colchester, is one example of the job-oriented approach.

“For a school of 800 students we have five tech ed teachers in a non-technical high school. That’s unheard of,” said Jeff Burt, superintendent of Colchester. “‘Under the ‘No Child Left Behind’ initiative, a lot of high schools got rid of their tech programs, but Bacon Academy held onto theirs and it has grown in earnest in the last five years.”

Students learn job skills at Bacon Academy in Colchester (Courtesy of Colchester Public Schools)

Bacon Academy not only offers manufacturing courses and welding apprenticeships, but also a partnership with Electric Boat and the Department of Labor to align curriculum with the skills needed to allow students to receive paid internships at the company.

Colchester and Electric Boat aren’t the only high school-corporate collaboration in the state. Sikorsky and Pratt and Whitney have similar programs with schools in their regions.

“Some programs allow students to take advanced-level manufacturing courses that are transferrable credits to Three Rivers or other community colleges,” explained Keith Norton, the chief strategic planning officer for the State Department of Education. “Companies like EB, Sikorsky and Pratt review courses, and pretty much instruct the schools on what specific skills they need students to learn to join the workforce.”

Burt said that Bacon Academy is working toward offering students the opportunity to earn an Associate’s Degree in manufacturing upon graduation.

The program is funded by the federal government under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 to improve career-targeted secondary education programs across the country.

That funding, and the Workforce Improvement and Opportunity Act of 2014, are intended to help teenagers and young adults find high-paying, stable employment.

“Bacon Academy is a fully comprehensive high school offering many courses and AP classes, but we try to offer a full spectrum for our students,” Burt said. “Manufacturing is an area that is in high demand due to the lack of people with specific skills needed.”

Pathways for college-bound students

According to Melissa Hickey, the director of literacy and reading for the State Department of Education, better student outcomes are a matter of exposure. The more career options students are offered in high school, the more successful they will be after high school, regardless of whether they attend college.

“It is important to look at this as not just college and career pathways, but the overall look at college and career readiness. We seek to ensure that when students graduate they are prepared for post-secondary education and/or the workforce,” Norton said. 

“If you look at students that attend college and switch majors two or even three years in, they are losing time and money,” Norton said. “What we’re looking at is going through that exploration process to figure out interests, goals and strengths beforehand. The earlier they explore, the better off they are.”

Colleges in Connecticut are also partnering with surrounding school districts to offer college-level courses to high school students. More than 20 school districts outside of Bridgeport have teachers trained to teach college-level courses by professors at the University of Bridgeport, said Norton. These opportunities in high school allow students to understand better what a particular major or course may be like.

Some public schools, like in Colchester, have a very focused program that allows students to explore one career opportunity with hands-on training. Other programs allow students the opportunity to intern or partner with a variety of local business, and to offer annual career days where professionals in the field can speak to students. These programs may offer students more of an insight into what a certain college major could lead to as a career. 

“What we don’t want to happen is for students to be put on tracks, we want them to have flexibility in their choices and learn from experiences,” Norton said.

College Preparation in Practice

Other districts, like Region 4 School District, have instituted a ‘guided pathways’ program that allows students to select coursework based on an area of interest.

“This initiative began in Region 4 in 2012, when we started developing individual student success plans for grade 6 students. These plans were intended to guide students in identifying potential career pathways,” said superintendent Brian White. “Our current focus on college and career pathways is about articulating a clear direction for our students as they explore the interests identified in their student success plans.”

The program divides courses into 10 different pathways: Architecture and Construction, Arts and Communication, Business-Finance-Marketing, Education and Training, Government and Law, Health Science and Human Services, Hospitality and Tourism, Information Technology, Manufacturing and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“As incoming high school students begin to plan their courses of study, we want them to understand how to map out pathways in a way that will help support their goals and to further explore career interests,” White said. “At Valley Regional High School, we are evaluating all of our subject area departments through the lens of college and career readiness and career pathways. This practice supports our school staff to appropriately advise our students as they design their individual high school course selections.”

The Department of Education encourages school districts to establish programs like in Region 4 and in Colchester by offering them points on their Next Generation Accountability Index score, ranking districts in the state.

According to Norton and Hickey, there is no evidence that these pathways and programs have any drawbacks for students.

“These are largely district-level programs so there isn’t much data either way. Programs are too divergent,” Hickey said. “The question to determine success is: what happens after graduation? It’s hard data to track, a lot of it is anecdotal – we want to keep an eye on it to better serve our districts so they can improve.”

In the future, the Department of Education is planning to encourage collaboration between districts to help expand career and technical programs and college pathways.

“We will help districts who have programs figure out how to grow and other districts that want to start how to do that,” Norton said. “We can team districts up with other districts to learn from their various experiences.”

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