How Denver Public Schools Are Rethinking High School

How Denver Public Schools Are Rethinking High School
AP photo / Daily Herald, Bob Chwedyk

As 2020 presidential candidates release policy proposals, their ideas to increase school funding and raise teacher pay have gotten lots of attention. More than half the campaign websites also discuss the importance of college and career readiness, but their ideas to better prepare students for the future of work have mostly flown under the radar. These issues, and how candidates would address them, deserve more attention, as they are a priority for American students and voters.

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Nearly 15% of high school students nationwide don’t graduate in four years, and that number is even higher for Black, Latinx, and Native American students, as well as students from families with low incomes. What’s more, too many of those who do graduate are not engaged with their coursework and unprepared for what’s next. High school graduation requirements only match college entrance expectations in four states, and despite evidence that they improve graduation rates and future earnings, career and technical education (CTE) opportunities have historically been underfunded. Even where CTE does exist, many young Americans lack information and resources to access it, unlike countries like Switzerland where more than two thirds of students are in high quality apprenticeships that have expanded access to the country’s highest academic and career tracks.

Denver Public Schools’ (DPS) CareerConnect programs are a promising example of how communities can improve student engagement and the connections between school and the workforce. These efforts start even before high school with project-based courses and industry introduction programs. DPS offers courses in a range of career pathways, as well as extensive opportunities for career exploration, mentorship, and internships, including what could be considered a flagship youth apprenticeship program where students spend up to half their week on-site with industry partners working for pay and earning college credit.

The CareerConnect team—along with other Colorado government, business, and education leaders—traveled to Switzerland and learned how to apply classroom learning to actual business situations. These lessons informed the 2017 launch of the youth apprenticeship program in partnership with the nonprofit CareerWise Colorado. According to CareerConnect Executive Director Lauren Trent, the apprenticeship program targets employers from industries with “the most opportunity for economic and educational mobility” and includes five pathway options for students: information technology, business operations, financial services, health care, and advanced manufacturing, CareerConnect Executive Director Lauren Trent told me.

These apprenticeships thrive through strong partnerships between the district and the industries to connect school and work experiences. For example, 15-year-old business apprentice Dezleen notes, “I’ve taken a lot of skills I’ve learned in class — like how to work in InDesign and Photoshop — and at work, I use those programs.” The industries benefit as well; one CEO of a partner business explained just how valuable these young student workers are, despite their inexperience: “it wasn’t about something special they learned in college — it’s that they’ve showed motivation, they’ve showed stick-to-itiveness, they’re curious.  

DPS has made intentional decisions across CareerConnect’s program designs and practice to ensure equitable access to opportunities. Participating students are representative of the district’s racial and ethnic diversity as well as the proportion of students from families with low incomes. Internships are available to all students regardless of disability or immigration status, and students are eligible for fellowship awards. Trent mentioned in our conversation that CareerConnect also provides resume reviews and conducts mock interviews for students interested in the programs and invests heavily in transportation and work-appropriate clothing so those don’t become barriers to participation.

Early results are promising. While the first apprenticeship cohort is still in the program, in the 2017-18 school year, DPS reported that students who had internships boasted a 270% increase in likelihood of on-time graduation. Student interest continues to grow as well. According to Trent, more than 600 DPS students were interested in the apprenticeship program. Those students will be competing with students from four nearby districts for fewer than 200 available apprenticeships. CareerWise Colorado is continuing to recruit new business partners to ensure more interested students can participate in the years to come.

To be sure, there are real challenges to the widespread adoption of similar programs in other places. Restructuring the high school experience requires significant leadership and investment from the district, and the unique agreements CareerWise Colorado and DPS have created with employers required significant collaboration. Even with strong leadership and partnerships, doing this well is not cheap. Denver voters passed a 2016 ballot initiative that provides CareerConnect with annually-recurring funding, but the program still relies on federal and state funding, as well as philanthropic grants, for just over half of its budget.

Although this type of creative approach to rethinking high school is hard, it is clearly necessary. A recent survey of high school graduates found that only 45% felt positive about their college and career readiness. Hopefully more attention from 2020 presidential candidates and investments in apprenticeship and CTE programs like DPS’s CareerConnect initiatives can change that for future cohorts.

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