College or career? California invests $500 million in program that tackles both

Students in Eastside High School's Biomedical Academy participate in a health care simulation. Courtesy of Kerin Coffey

School districts and charter schools can apply for grants, but so will regional occupational centers or a community college working in concert with local K-12 schools.

A question that has long vexed American secondary education is whether to prepare students for college or a career. With the creation of the Golden State Pathways Program, California has decided to invest in both.

The state budget sets aside $500 million in competitive grants to establish a new program to ensure students “advance seamlessly from high school to college and career.” Its goal is to help students transition from high school to well-paying, skilled careers. The pathways include A-G course requirements for admission to state universities and the opportunity to earn 12 college credits through dual enrollment, AP or IB classes. Work-based learning must be part of the pathway, and schools must offer support to students along the way.

All of these are familiar ideas. Career technical education in California has been bolstered by federal workforce grants and previous state efforts, such as the California Career Pathways Trust and Career Technical Education Incentive Grant. Dual enrollment has received state funding — the latest budget sets aside $200 million.

What makes the Golden State Pathways Program unique is that it is knitting all of these goals together in a single, integrated program of study for each student.

It sounds like a straightforward goal, but actually achieving that is a tall order, said Linda Collins, founder and executive director of Career Ladders Project, which supports redesigning community colleges to support students.

Helping students make the transitions from high school to college and career demands that K-12 schools, colleges and universities and employers work together, but funding streams tend to silo all those groups. Just the mere fact that higher education and K-12 are funded separately creates barriers.

“Nobody’s job is paying attention to that space,” said Collins.

A major strength of the Golden State Pathways Program is that it attempts to bridge those gaps. School districts and charter schools will be eligible to apply for the program grants, but so will regional occupational centers or a community college working in concert with local K-12 schools.

Proponents say the investment is welcome and sorely needed for a generation of students hit hard by the pandemic, especially low-income students and communities. 

Separating the path to college and career has often meant that Black, Latino and low-income students end up tracked for lower-income occupations while others are deemed “college material,” said Collins. That’s why she said it’s so important that every student be prepared for both college and career.

“What’s at the heart of that is an equity question,” said Collins.

How the pathways are implemented is key. Dual enrollment, which is a piece of the pathway puzzle, has the power to transform educational outcomes, but the pathways are still not being offered equitably in high schools, Collins said.

Priority will be given to applicants with lower than average A-G course completion or higher than average rates of poverty, homelessness and foster youth, school suspensions and expulsions and dropouts. A report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office questioned whether these criteria, which include over two-thirds of school districts, will enable the funds to get to the neediest districts or even the neediest schools within districts.

Golden State Pathways Program does require grant applicants to describe how they will support the needs of underrepresented students.

“If you’re going to say you’re doing pathways, then make sure they’re equitable and make sure they’re delivering on both college and career,” said Anne Stanton, president of the Linked Learning Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates giving youth opportunities to learn about careers.

The new program also requires recipients to submit data on how students are performing on measures such as completing A-G requirements, college credits earned, internships completed and success in transitioning to the industry that the pathway has prepared them for.

Emily Passias, the vice president of policy for Linked Learning Alliance, applauded the state for this requirement and for setting aside 5% of grant funding for recipients to track this data.

“It’s absolutely crucial for the state to learn from the investment,” she said.

What makes proponents of the program optimistic is that research in schools where this is already happening demonstrates that it’s the right approach.

“The most important thing is that it’s trying to build on success,” said Loren Kaye, president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, a think tank associated with the California Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not some new idea that is coming out of the university. It is built on years of effort and collaboration.”

Most students’ awareness of what kind of jobs are available to them comes from what their parents or their friends’ parents do, he said. Linked learning has demonstrated a way to introduce students and their parents to options, while also offering them structured support to get there.

Golden State Pathways Program prioritizes a few general pathways: education, computer science, health care and climate resilience involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

One of the schools that has developed pathways using a linked learning approach is Eastside High School in the Antelope Valley. One of its pathways, the Biomedical Science Academy, exposes students to careers in health care at a school where 82% of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged. Students in the academy have the opportunity to participate in work-based learning, like learning how to offer health care to patients in a simulation lab.

Expectations are high for students in the program. Students take honors English, AP courses and advanced math courses. But no one is weeded out, said Kerin Coffey, the academy coordinator and a teacher in the program. Everyone who applies is accepted. 

Coffey said there are students in the program who might not traditionally be considered “AP students” who succeed. That includes students who are English learners and students with individualized education plans. She attributes that to the extra supports that academy students receive, such as tutoring and Saturday school. Additionally, the classroom has become a more collaborative atmosphere because students take most of their classes together.

Proponents of pathways talk about the importance of cohesion for engaging students. At Eastside Union High, teachers strive to make sure that their classes all feel connected to health. In Spanish class, they learn how to put together a public service announcement about diabetes in Spanish. In English class, they will get help writing a lab report.

That cohesion turns out to be good for teachers, too. Eight years ago, Coffey said, she felt like she was hitting a wall. She struggled with feeling like she was on her own professionally. Now she’s celebrating 24 years in the classroom.

“It has totally reinvigorated my love of teaching,” she said. “I love being in the classroom.”

Coffey isn’t alone. Though her school struggles with teacher turnover, she’s noticed that her colleagues in the Biomedical Sciences Academy have tended to stick around. She believes that the same thing that works for students — working together across disciplines in a coherent way — is also rewarding for teachers.

“The teachers are happier, the kids are happier,” Coffey said. “Things are going really well.”

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