Oakland school officials believe high school students are more serious about classwork and study harder when they can connect their high school curriculum with real-world work.

Armed with data showing that students involved in internships tend to do better academically, Oakland Unified is embarking on a plan to bring a career pathways curriculum, which combines work experience and academics, to all of its 9,200 high school students.

It’s called “Linked Learning.

OUSD already offers Linked Learning internships to about a third of its students in such fields as health care, digital media, engineering and art. At two of its high schools, MetWest High School and Life Academy, the entire curriculum is designed around internship.  Watch the video above to learn what four MetWest students do in their internships and senior projects.

Linked Learning is part of OUSD’s high school improvement strategy which also includes providing each student with an advisor and creating small learning communities in which students interested in the same career paths take classes together for several years.

Studying data about its own students from 2011-2012, OUSD found that graduation rates, college preparatory course completion rates and standardized test scores were all better, on average, among high school students in career programs. Specifically, it found that 84 percent of students in OUSD pathway programs that year subsequently graduated from high school, compared to 58 percent of students not in pathway programs.

More than half of the career pathway students had also taken the courses they needed to get into a California state university, while only 31 percent of the other kids had taken those classes. Lastly, proficiency scores on state standardized tests were higher among career pathway kids than among their peers not in the program by 37 percent versus 22 percent in English and 14 percent versus 7 percent in math.

The point of career pathway and Linked Learning instruction, said Gretechen Livesey, OUSD’s director of college and career readiness, “is allowing students to see that what they’re learning in the classroom relates to the real world.”

OUSD’s high school improvement plan has four goals: “retention, rigor, relevance and relationship,” Livesey said of the strategic plan that is now a key focus of the District, as it strives prevent kids from dropping out or finishing school without skills needed for work or college.

“The most foundational piece is grounding the students in relationships with each other and with their teachers and advisors so that they begin to feel that they are part of a community and they become more deeply engaged in academics and civic engagement,” she said. That foundation then leads them to become engaged in their educations again, “and the outcome is they stay in school until they graduate, which means there is a higher possibility of post-graduation success.”

Seeing the relevance of schoolwork and building relationships with other students doing the same kind of work helps them get excited about education again, she said. “I believe only then are they ready to engage in rigorous academics.”

OUSD has been grappling with how to reduce a high school dropout rate that stood at 21.6 percent last June, but was as high as 32 percent four years ago. The district is trying a number of strategies. One is to allow students to take a fifth year to complete school. So while only 62.7 percent of high school seniors graduated last year after four years of high school, only 21.6 percent had dropped out. The others are continuing coursework needed to get their diplomas.

Why should Oaklanders care what high school students do with their days and what the District plans for them? Well, for one, OUSD officials and board members are considering asking Oakland residents to pass a new parcel tax to help pay for expanding Linked Learning programs so they’re available to all high school students.

According to a voter research survey, a parcel tax of between $95 a parcel a year and $150 a parcel a year could possibly win sufficient voter approval. A survey of 552 Oakland voters by Gene Bregman & Associates indicated that 69 percent of voters might be willing to vote for a $150 parcel tax to help the high schools, while 79 percent responded that they would vote for a $95 parcel tax to help high schools. Of course, responding to a survey is different from actually voting to be taxed, so there’s no proof this percentage would vote for the tax. But it did indicate widespread opinion that the district needs to do more for its high school students.

According to a presentation Acting Superintendent Gary Yee made to the school board this month, a still-tentative and not-yet-formally-proposed Oakland College & Career Readiness for All Fund would be spent on hiring more counselors, mentors and advisors, expanding the school day in high schools to 8 periods from the current 6 periods, adding more college preparatory courses and support systems for them so that all students have access to the type of courses they need to get into college, and implementing a program in which businesses, nonprofits and government agencies are recruited to help provide internships. Funds raised would be divided equally per student for high school kids enrolled in OUSD-run schools and charter schools overseen by OUSD.

Photo credit: Video and photo by Barbara Grady.

About The Author

Barbara Grady is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can reach her at barbara@oaklandlocal.com

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