Ed. Note: In 2011, California’s legislature passed AB 790, a statewide initiative aimed at addressing the growing number of high school graduates unprepared or under-prepared for either college or a career. Studies document that up to 70 percent of high school seniors fall into one of these two categories. The initiative targeted 20 school districts and nearly a third, or some 600,000 high school students across California. Schools implementing the Linked Learning Pilot Program — one of a number of school reform efforts in the state — integrate academic rigor with a demanding technical curriculum geared toward a professional field. In its first two years, the program has met with promising success. This is the first of three stories by New America Media’s ethnic media partners on how Linked Learning is being applied in some of the state’s most underserved communities.
by Momo Chang
On a Thursday afternoon, Da’Vahn Frazier greets customers at a downtown Berkeley restaurant. Frazier may pass as wait staff at Café Platano, a family-owned Salvadoran eatery, but he’s not — the high school senior is an intern and is being graded on his work.
Frazier is a student at Oakland’s MetWest High School, where internships with the local business community are a cornerstone of the curriculum.
“We know that students are dropping out because they are not engaged or challenged enough, so this is a piece to address that and keep them in school,” says Diana Kampa, a program manager at Oakland Unified School District’s College and Career Readiness Office.
Kampa’s office oversees 24 career pathway programs implemented across this mostly low-income district. The programs, with themes ranging from information technology to health care and green energy, incorporate college prep work with exposure to skills needed in a given profession.
The impact on student achievement is noteworthy.
Students enrolled in one of OUSD’s career pathway programs have a graduation rate of 84 percent, versus 58 percent for non-pathway students. A-G completion rates with a grade of C or better — required for admittance into either the University of California or California State university systems — is 52 percent for career pathway students, compared to the district average of 31 percent, according to data from the 2011-2012 school year.
“It’s a struggle (for my son) to do academic work,” admits Chad Thompson, whose son is currently a junior at MetWest, which has a student population of less than 150. Based on The Big Picture Learning model, the curriculum there involves participation in internships, with advisors who work with small groups of students to monitor their progress on the job and in the classroom.
“Internships give them a place for them to be their best selves,” says Marisa Traylor, a Humanities teacher and advisor at the school. “They feel motivated and accountable, and they feel successful.”
Thompson says his son “would have been lost” at a larger, more traditional school. “The biggest thing is that he needs motivation, and he likes to be useful.”
Leticia Garcia transferred her son from a large high school to MetWest as an 11th grader because of falling grades. “He was so distracted. We didn’t think he would graduate on time.” Not long after, he began getting A’s and B’s and is currently active in Upward Bound, several internships, an after school Raza Studies program, and is taking a science course at Laney College, just across the street.
Across the country school districts are working to keep up with rapid changes in the economy. Many are adopting career-focused curriculums as a way to both prepare students for an evolving workforce and to better engage them in their studies.
In California — where nearly one third of high school students drop out and another third graduate unprepared for either college or work — the state legislature in 2011 passed AB 790. The bill established so-called “Linked Learning” pilot programs in 63 districts and county offices of education statewide — not including Oakland — reaching nearly a third of all high school students in the state.
The James Irvine Foundation has donated $51 million in support of the initiative, which is slated to run through to 2017.
For students like Frazier, the experience has proven to be life changing.
Soon after he began 9th grade at another Oakland school, Frazier’s grades began to fall. He would often get into trouble for things like getting out of his seat and wandering around the classroom. Today, he is on track to graduate in June and hopes to attend college to study political science, culinary arts and acting.
His 10th grade advisor, Carolyn Norr, attributes that turnaround to the success of his internship, which she says allowed him to reconnect to school. “He needed that chance to really shine,” Norr explains.
Frazier’s work at Café Platano involves setting out tortillas and salsa, smashing boxes for recycling, washing dishes and restocking the refrigerator. But he’s also learning the ins and outs of running a business through his mentor, Nicolas Sanchez, who co-owns Café Platano with his brother Juan.
“As the owner, the first thing you want to see is the hunger to learn,” Sanchez says. “I want to make sure they [interns] are capable and they want to do it.” He adds, however, that his own time pressures make offering internships a challenge. “It’s hard,” he admits.
It’s challenging for students too. Frazier called about 20 places before he found his first internship, with a local puppeteer.
Can the Model be Replicated?
In recent years, OUSD has closed several career academies for reasons mostly due to restructuring. MetWest has also struggled with budget issues, in part because the school’s model calls for small class sizes — currently at around 20 students per class — that are more expensive to operate.
Coordinating internships also requires real peoplepower. MetWest has a Learning Through Internship Coordinator, Greg Cluster, who manages internship placements and sustains partnerships with about 500 nonprofits, businesses, public agencies and professionals. Though internship placement is not always perfect, “We found that if their interests are genuine, they’ll always find an adult who can take them in,” Cluster said.
In addition, the model itself may not be replicable across the district. Kampa says there’s no way to place every one of the district’s 10,000 high school students in an internship, integral to the overall success of the program. Summer internships, shadow days, field trips and guest speakers — all of which are also part of the work-based learning model — are ways the district is attempting to expose students to the professional world.
Still, that hasn’t deterred Timothy Bremner, founder, director and teacher of the Sustainable Urban Design Academy (SUDA), a part of the larger Castlemont High School in East Oakland.
“We want to expose students to a lot of different careers,” says Bremner, whose program is in its first year and received a grant from the CA Department of Education in partnership with the CA Energy Commission.
SUDA partners with numerous environmentally focused non-profits, including PUEBLO, Youth Uprising (next door to the school), Urban Releaf and Kijani Grows. About 20 students have after school green jobs, such as working the school’s farmers market. And for the first time, all of Castlemont’s 140 seniors have internships as part of their senior thesis project.
Ronye Cooper, 16, went on her first camping trip at a sustainable farm as part of SUDA. She says she wants to go into medical psychology. “My other [choice] would be to help the environment and my community. Maybe an urban forester.”
Cooper also says she’s picked up a recycling habit, and has begun to question the conditions in her neighborhood. “I think about how I live in East Oakland, and the pollution … it made me think, ‘Why are we living like this?’”
One of SUDA’s upcoming projects is “Guns to Gardens,” transforming the school’s former JROTC rifle range into an aquaponics garden, using fish to grow plants.
With a growing number of such success stories, officials seem to be paying attention. In the last two years, the district has launched SUDA and Project Lead the Way, two STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) academies at McClymonds High School and Oakland High School.
“Our focus is to continue building out the fledgling academies,” says Kampa, “and also to increase enrollment in the other [existing] academies.”
Momo Chang is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, CA. She previously taught English and Social Studies in Oakland. This story was produced by New America Media and made possible through a grant from the California Education Policy Fund.