California officials Tuesday opened applications for a $250-million grant program to help students connect their academic learning with careers, marking the nation’s largest effort of its kind, officials said.
Programs linking academics, technical career knowledge and job experience have been shown to reduce dropout rates, while training future workers for fast-growing fields such as healthcare, manufacturing, biotechnology, aerospace and energy, said State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and state Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, who made the announcement.
"Once students get involved in a career pathway, they see the relevancy of their education," Torlakson said. "They're not dropping out into drugs, gangs...and they're dreaming of a career."
Too often, Steinberg said, young people find that algebra, biology, history and other core academic subjects are “dry and don’t relate to the real world.” But their success in school is critical to the region's economic health, he said. He noted that a six-county Southern California leadership group recently reported that more than 40% of the region’s working-age population has not advanced beyond high school, creating major gaps in skills needed for increasingly complex jobs.
Steinberg added that making learning come alive and better connecting it with careers should be the state’s “No. 1 education reform agenda item.” More important, he said, than such hot-button issues as improving evaluation systems or dismissal processes for teachers.
“Those issues are important, but not nearly as important as what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it and whether or not it relates to the challenges of the modern economy,” Steinberg said.
His legislation to create the “California Career Pathways Trust” was approved last year. Funding for 40 three-year grants, with 10 of them up to $15 million each, was included in Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014-15 budget. The grants are available to school districts, county offices of education, community college districts and public charter campuses but they must act in a consortium with businesses, civic organizations or other partners.
David Rattray, chair of the statewide Linked Learning Alliance, last year asked Steinberg and Torlakson for funding to help build broader connections with businesses for internships and other job experiences. A 2012 evaluation by the James Irvine Foundation of linked learning programs in nine school districts — including Los Angeles, Long Beach, Montebello and Pasadena Unified — found that educators were committed and students engaged but that opportunities for work-based learning were limited.
In Los Angeles Unified, programs are offered at more than 10 high schools; they include multimedia, engineering and medical academies at Belmont High, design and gaming at Hawkins High and business and law at Dorsey High. At the STEM Academy of Hollywood on the Bernstein High campus, students in the healthcare program do internships with Kaiser Permanente; the healthcare organization also works with teachers to create “real-world” classroom lessons.
But such relationships are not as common as desired, Rattray said. “It’s pretty fragmented,” he said. “Unless you have a full-time professional staff to connect schools to business, it’s hard to sustain relationships.”
In Boston, one highly effective strategy is placing “career specialists” in schools to connect students with internships and other job experiences, Rattray said. The new California grant program will allow money to be similarly used for such specialists, he added.
Applications are available on the California Dept. of Education website. The application deadline is March 28.