Engaging Every Student

Reshaping Education to Build Our Citizens

A typical understanding of the American education experience is a series of stations along a one-way track from pre-k through high school, then (for many) college and (for some) graduate school, before finally entering the labor market and a rewarding career. But in reality, this idealized pathway is only one among many, and increasingly the one experienced by a privileged few. So how is our region working to change the narrative and unlock doors for all of our students? And how are we helping students who’ve become disengaged to find a key and forge ahead?

Linking Learning to Career Opportunities

Briana Mihok of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh works with elected officials and community leaders across the commonwealth. This non-partisan organization studies education, the workforce, infrastructure, healthcare, and even the ways these pieces work together.

Mihok has studied suburban poverty, the opioid epidemic, and the rise in incarceration. At the center of all of it, Mihok feels, is the K-12 education system. She says, “when students are not engaged, they drop out. When they drop out, they’re less likely to maintain a high level of socioeconomic status, hold a job, or be engaged citizens.”

Mihok worked with Aaron Lauer on a massive research report investigating the ways that career and technical education (CTE) can help to engage those students most at risk for dropping out of school, and how such project-based learning plays a crucial role in “addressing education and workforce issues facing our region’s students and employers.”

Lauer finds that “when students have a better understanding of the link between classroom learning and higher education or the job market,” their interest level increases. This isn’t just a casual observation. In 2014, Pennsylvania’s overall graduation rate was 86% while the graduation rate for students enrolled in CTE programs was 99%–a significant difference.

Susie Puskar, director of Youth Innovation at Partner4Work, a workforce development agency, is not surprised by that data. A large part of her job is helping young people to understand the links between academic skills like mathematics and the ways they’ll use those skills in their occupation. She says, “linking algebra and trigonometry to something like carpentry makes a clear and tangible connection for someone who might not understand abstractly how math is critically important to their future.”

Mihok’s research highlighted the usefulness of career pathways, an educational model that sets a clear path for students to receive occupational training in a particular field while still receiving instruction in traditional academic subjects. Students can look at a career pathway to really see how trigonometry can be used in various careers that interest them. Lauer says seeing these maps also gives students a checklist to work toward that goal. The state of Ohio, Lauer says, does an excellent job creating a visual tool for students to see the progression of different career opportunities if they stack up specific courses or credentials. Someone interested in animals, for instance, can see the different job titles, salary ranges, and suggested classes to take starting in 7th grade.

Puskar points out that many young people are not planning to attend a four-year college, but that the reality of our modern job market is that “a high school diploma is a starting point now for a career of lifelong learning.”

We’ve written about ways area schools are incorporating career exploration into their curriculum, and showing students the steps they need to reach careers they want. But we also know there’s more to landing a family-sustaining job.

Build Skills to Build Confidence

Students explore the Simcoach Games Skill Arcade / Photo: Ben Filio

Students explore the Simcoach Games Skill Arcade / Photo: Ben Filio

Kim Safran is the principal at PPS Brashear, a high school whose students hail from over 30 countries and, for the vast majority, live in poverty. She says, “My students are motivated by money, let me tell you, but sometimes they get a part-time job, start earning a paycheck, and then think they can drop out.” Safran says 70% of her students have jobs, but she sees a real need for financial literacy. “Many of my students are helping to support their families,” she says, “but they just don’t understand that minimum wage is not a living wage.”

Financial literacy is just one of the so-called “soft skills” that Puskar’s organization helps young people to build. And how are today’s youth best engaged? Interactive video games, it seems. A partnership with SimCoach Games led to the development of a series of games teaching workforce development skills from harness safety to organizing a cash register, with a host of professionalism skills in between.

SimCoach Chief Games Officer Jessica Trybus says employers have told her “people are not coming in to jobs with the basic understanding of how to dress appropriately or with any conflict resolution or time management skills. These are things companies expect people to learn as they grow up, but it turns out that doesn’t just happen.” SimCoach’s Skill Arcade games teach interview skills like eye contact and smiling, giving players feedback, a sense of consequences for poor choices, and resources to learn more. “These skills are as important to employers as awareness of the industry,” Trybus says.

Sometimes, even with strong interview skills and a clear goal, students can struggle to see themselves succeeding in a career. Puskar says dual enrollment opportunities can both give young people a leg up while they’re in high school and also boost their confidence as learners to keep them engaged while they are working toward their diploma and credentials. Puskar cites summer programs sponsored by the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation as an example, where high school students enroll in college English classes over the summer. Students who might be placed in a remedial English class if they were to enroll as college freshmen are instead placed in a standard level class and given tutoring and additional support. Puskar says 20 out of the 22 enrolled students passed the class last summer and returned to high school with the confidence of someone who has already succeeded in a college-level course.

Provide Guidance to Create Engagement

With all this emphasis on catching students before they fall through cracks, we wondered what happens if students already disengaged, if (like Safran fears) they decide to drop out once they get a part-time job. Puskar says Partner4Work connects with organizations to support youth who are not in school. She says, “we look for programs to help those youth get their GED or diploma and then figure out what comes next for them in terms of industry or skill training.” Partner4Work offers programming in construction, culinary, and tech industries (among other high-demand occupations) and connects each participant with an adult mentor.

Puskar says, “mentorship is critically important to youth success because it expands their opportunity networks and gives them a safe way to discuss issues with workplace behavior.” She says mentors follow up with youth for a full year after they complete a program, and this is important because “some youth struggle with getting a job and leave for one reason or another. Knowing they have a place to go back to is really important for achieving long-term success.”

Mihok feels hopeful that as schools place increased value on CTE and 21st Century Skills like creativity, problem solving, and teamwork, that students will be more prepared for careers as lifelong learners, and that we will continue to see graduation rates climb. But Mihok sees something deeper and more meaningful at play as students boost their confidence and build professional skills. A side effect of exploring effective communication techniques and critical thinking, she thinks, will be an increased sense of each student’s sense of their role in their communities, the way they view their place in the world. She says, “I’m advocating for more civics education. When students think about what it means to live in an advanced society and how they can contribute to its well-being, they come to realize that everyone matters. Each person has a contribution to make.”


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