Fueled by Grants, States Bet Innovative Career Training Programs Will Lure Disengaged Youth Back to School After COVID — Starting in Middle School

By Beth Hawkins | November 9, 2021

By Beth HawkinsNovember 9, 2021

Updated Nov. 11

Could student-run vertical farms — hyper-efficient, clean facilities where produce grows up on racks, instead of out across fields — help stabilize small cities in northwest Tennessee?

Could apprenticeships with local chefs keep disaffected Delaware teens in high school and reopen the state’s restaurants, the source of one-tenth of its jobs?

What if a paycheck earned during high school, and the promise of a better one after attaining a credential in a field where good jobs are going begging, motivates a young person who left school during COVID-19 to come back?

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With tectonic shifts in the U.S. labor market, a K-12 establishment desperate to re-engage disaffected students and a proven record of pre-pandemic success stories, career and technical education is having a moment.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has announced $25 million in new grants in two states and nine cities — the latest in a series of initiatives by private donors and state and civic leaders — to boost promising career-pathway programs at a time when they are particularly suited to addressing educational inequities widened by COVID.

With the aim of maximizing the impact of their donations, a number of other philanthropies are collaborating with Bloomberg. Last week, the Walton Family Foundation announced $20 million in grants to nonprofits engaged in career development efforts, including a competitive grant program, the Catalyze Challenge, co-sponsored by the nonprofit American Student Assistance and the Charter School Growth Fund. Other Walton grantees include the think tank New America’s Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship which, among other things, uses data to identify promising initiatives, and Urban Alliance, which aims to increase employer participation in career preparation.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, JP Morgan Chase, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Charles Koch Institute and Walmart.org have also recently announced new or increased financial support for CTE. Building on research funded by Bloomberg, the education leadership incubator Chiefs for Change has issued recommendations for states and school districts that want to create programs or boost the effectiveness of existing ones.

Delaware, Texas and Tennessee are among states that have tapped their federal stimulus funds to make job training a bigger part of their pandemic recovery efforts.

The idea is to expand next-generation workforce training programs, which initial research suggests spur greater numbers of students to pursue more challenging academic courses and to stick with them until graduation. Among other things, adding philanthropic dollars and federal pandemic recovery money to existing funding will allow schools to extend such offerings to middle schoolers.

“These kinds of programs obviously are about supporting young people in paths to good jobs and careers, but they also have the dual benefit of stronger engagement and persistence and success in school,” says Jade Grieve, who manages career and technical education programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “This is a real opportunity for these programs to re-engage young people in their education in a meaningful way, as well as getting postsecondary credentials.”

Missing students + unfilled jobs = economic warning signs

Throughout the pandemic, millions of children disengaged from school. Large numbers of high school students went to work to help support families reeling from the pandemic-induced recession, as their parents’ low-paying jobs disappeared. Others stayed home to supervise younger siblings or simply stopped attending, remotely or in person. Even after schools started to reopen, absenteeism surged.

At the same time, well-paid white-collar employees were able to work from home, and their children shifted to online classes. Those jobs have largely survived the pandemic, but many of the low-skilled positions have not come back. Currently, according to Bureau of Labor statistics supplied by Walton, the U.S. has 10.4 million unfilled jobs, and more than 8.4 million unemployed Americans are seeking work

In August, The 74 published a series of stories examining the ways in which COVID exacerbated economic and educational inequities, accelerating trends that have widened the chasm between the haves and have-nots in five communities. 

Overall, school systems have a lackluster history of adapting to job market trends and training students for skilled careers that pay a living wage but don’t require a college degree. But one story in the series looked at how school system leaders and workforce development officials teamed up in Reno, Nevada, after the Great Recession of 2008 to make K-12 schools the centerpiece of a plan to create a more sustainable regional economy. That effort has been credited with minimizing the devastating effects of the COVID-19 recession on Reno’s economy and its people.

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Reno’s initiative is a marked contrast from traditional so-called vo-tech programs that tracked students into classes with little advanced academic content. And in the decade since it began, CTE programs nationwide have begun shifting toward preparing students for both college and careers.

In 2018, Congress overhauled the Carl D. Perkins Act, which steers career-technical education in the United States. The new law included several important changes — if not, advocates say, enough money to adequately fund cutting-edge programs. 

States that now receive a share of federal workforce preparation funding must show their CTE students receive the same academic rigor as their peers and succeed at the same rates. And the emphasis is far more focused on math, science, engineering, technology, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and entrepreneurship.

Perkins also prods states to make sure CTE programs line up with employers’ needs, so students are trained for careers that are both in demand and bolster their community’s economy. And because exposure to workplaces often changes students’ notions of what field they want to pursue, schools are now encouraged to begin offering career education in middle school. 

Changes to Perkins were beginning to take place when COVID-19 forced schools nationwide to close. Last spring, when Congress approved $123 billion in a third wave of school pandemic recovery funding, there was no requirement that states direct any of the funds targeted to making up lost learning to workforce preparation programs.

“But we were pleasantly surprised to see that many do,” says Kimberly Green, executive director of Advance CTE, a membership organization made up of state career-education leaders. “We know the relevancy of career-technical education, especially at a moment when so many learners aren’t sure of the relevance of school.”

Beyond the tangible benefit of a paycheck, job training programs engage students in a number of ways, she says. Some find their new workplaces more interesting than school. Particularly in high school, students working toward career certificates in certain industries often take a sequence of classes with the same instructor for two years, so “a mentor-mentee relationship gets established,” says Green. “We see boundaries between school and home start to erode.”

Evidence of job-training programs’ effectiveness is limited — not least because they encompass so many disparate models — but research generally suggests that students enrolled in programs that use best practices score as well as their peers on academic assessments, graduate at rates that are similar or better and in many instances obtain more higher education. Early research finds that career and technical education has a positive impact on student engagement.

Urban agriculture, futuristic farming and building an airplane

One state that had started transforming its career and technical education system pre-pandemic is Delaware, which began working with Bloomberg in 2017. In the three years before COVID’s shutdowns, the state was able to enroll half of high school students statewide in workforce programs. In October, Gov. John Carney announced plans to spend $16 million — half federal recovery funds and half private donations — to expand this to 80 percent of high schoolers and half of middle school students.

Like other states incorporating career and technical education into their school recovery plans, Delaware is looking not just at the jobs lost in the pandemic, but at the skills its workforce will need to sustain health care, information technology, chemical manufacturing, tourism and other industries expected to grow in coming years, says Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation, which works on education issues in the state.

Delaware is heavily reliant on tourism, making a desperate shortage of culinary workers especially problematic. Ninety-eight percent of the state’s restaurants have been unable to find enough staff, leaving some 5,000 jobs open. Among the initiatives to train students for unfilled positions are apprenticeships with chefs.

In addition to training people for the jobs officials believe will grow, Delaware’s large-scale effort presents an opportunity to chip away at longstanding inequities in the labor market. Programs now on the table, for example, are geared toward people who were formerly incarcerated and neuro-divergent workers, such as individuals with autism.

Last month, Chiefs for Change released two reports designed to help states and school systems that want to expand career-technical education in their postpandemic plans. The group singled out efforts in New Orleans, the San Antonio Independent School District and Tennessee as examples of how others might expand job training programs.

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn says the combination of Perkins’ expansion to middle schools and the arrival of federal stimulus funds touched off an explosion of interest. Last spring, when the state Department of Education announced it had new funds available, Schwinn’s office was inundated with applications. Sixty middle schools and 62 high schools sought grants to establish career-prep programs, up from an average of 10 applications a year from high schools. The state was able to fund all of the lower-grades programs and half of the secondary ones.

As in Delaware, the combination of the pandemic’s devastating economic impact and new resources to address it has changed Tennessee’s approach. In handing out its funds, the state is accounting both for the industries it hopes to attract and other issues tied to prosperity, such as stabilizing inner cities and underpopulated rural areas. Among other career areas, state leaders are betting on futuristic farming, using artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies to make both urban and rural agriculture — industries with shrinking workforces — ecologically and economically sustainable. 

For example, using drones to help survey and tend fields can reduce the need for manpower — but agricultural workers will have to know how to operate and maintain the technology. So-called vertical farms, where produce is grown on racks, uses 90 percent less land than conventional agriculture and up to 95 percent less water, making them much more environmentally sound. Highly mechanized according to precise specifications, however, their farmers often rely on artificial intelligence to tend to their produce, requiring workers with robotics and other technology skills.

Other job-based programs recently approved by Schwinn’s office include a forestry program that will transport rural students who otherwise would have little access to specialized career training to a single site in the state’s heavily wooded southwest region, and a high school where aviation students will build — and fly — an airplane.

In the 2017-18 school year, some 7,500 students participated in work-based learning in Tennessee. Two years later, the number had mushroomed to more than 33,000. Schwinn’s goal is for half the state’s middle schools to become designated STEM centers, with science, technology, engineering and math courses that set students up for a career concentration in high school.

“What the last two years has revealed starkly, and I think everyone understands this, is the need to create more opportunities for young people to be connected to good jobs and careers,” says Bloomberg’s Grieve.

Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York provide financial support to The 74. The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74 and the Charter School Growth Fund. 


Lead Art: Getty Images