College & Careers > Career Preparation

Hundreds of districts, partnerships signal interest in 'career pathways' grant program


High school students participate in the SunPower Solar Science Academy, tying skills in science, math and engineering with career preparation. Programs that integrate academics with career prep are getting a boost from a $250 million state grant program. Credit: SunPower

High school students participate in the SunPower Solar Science Academy, tying skills in science, math and engineering with career preparation. Programs that integrate academics with career prep are getting a boost from a $250 million state grant program. Credit: SunPower

Competition is shaping up to be fierce for a new state grant supporting programs that link academics with real-world career opportunities.

The California Department of Education has received some 275 letters from parties interested in seeking a piece of the California Career Pathways Trust. The trust is a $250 million one-time grant fund for programs that link schools, community colleges and businesses in partnerships to better prepare students for college and careers. The letters of intent to apply for funding – a required, preliminary step before submitting a formal grant application – contain requests for $1.5 billion worth of programs, the state schools chief said Friday. That’s more than six times the amount of money available in the fund.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the interest is so keen and that so many partners have lined up to work together,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said.

Not all those who submitted letters of intent to the California Department of Education will necessarily submit formal grant applications, and many of those who submitted letters may join in partnerships with one another and unite under one proposal, said Joe Radding, manager of the California Career Pathways Trust. And the $1.5 billion figure may ultimately be high, as the actual amounts groups request in their formal application may change.

Still, the varied field reflects broad interest in the programs, Torlakson said.

He ticked off the interested applicant field so far: 158 letters of intent were submitted by school districts, 61 by charter schools, 34 by community college districts, and 22 by county offices of education.

March 28 is the final deadline to submit grant applications to the California Department of Education, Torlakson said at a news conference in Los Angeles where he provided an update on the fund. Torlakson was joined by State Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who pushed for the creation of the grant program, Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor Adriana Barrera and representatives from the L.A. business community.

The amount of interest in the program “indicates to me that this is an area where there would be great value in more investment,” Steinberg said in an interview after the news conference. He said he will work during the budget process his year to seek more money for similar career programs.

Collaboration with businesses is key to the success of the programs, which are intended to help address California’s high school dropout rate and “skills gap” – the deficit between what students learn in school compared with skills employers look for in the workplace.

The programs run the gamut from career technical programs offered by Regional Occupational Programs to career pathways or “linked learning” approaches that integrate career themes throughout the academic program and include real-world work experiences, such as internships, to help keep students engaged.

The Department of Education expects to award $15 million grants to 10 regional partnerships. Another 15 successful grant applicants will receive $6 million and up to 15 grants for $600,000 will also be awarded. The grants will be awarded June 1.

The announcement comes as the state is putting more focus on programs that combine academics and career skills.

A 2012 state law, based on a bill by Steinberg, requires the State Board of Education to incorporate measures of career and college readiness into a school’s Academic Performance Index, the primary measure of school effectiveness, by 2016.

And a new study suggests that the linked learning approach shows promise in keeping students on track to graduate and go to college and helps foster a greater sense of engagement with school. Students in the linked learning programs evaluated in the study completed more high school course credits than other, comparable students in their school district, and were more likely to be on track to complete the courses, called A-G, required for admission to the University of California or California State University, according to the study released last month by Center for Education Policy at SRI International, a nonpartisan research institute.

“The real goal of linked learning is to make sure students are ready for college and careers, so it’s very promising,” said the study’s lead author, Roneeta Guha, a senior researcher at the Center for Education.

The study, released Feb. 26, was based on the results of a four-year evaluation of nine districts participating in the California Linked Learning District Initiative, started in 2009 by the James Irvine Foundation* to promote the integrated programs. Each of the nine participating districts – which include Oakland, Los Angeles and West Contra Costa in Richmond – have a high population of low-income students.

The study – the first, in-depth evaluation of the participating districts – compared students in linked learning programs to demographically similar peers in traditional high school programs. Among the findings:

  • Program participants earned an average of 6.6 more credits in 10th grade than other students.
  • Program participants were 8.9 percentage points more likely to be on track to complete A-G coursework by the end of 10th grade than other students.

Responses to a student survey also showed that linked learning students felt more comfortable working in groups and in professional settings than other students, and said that the programs had helped them develop “productive mindsets” that gave them more confidence they could reach their goals and see the benefits of doing well in school.

Students in the programs, however, logged mixed results on test scores when compared to other students. Scores on standardized tests, including math and English assessments and the high school exit exam, varied greatly across districts between students in career programs and other students, without any consistent results across the groups.

“We just don’t see a consistent story in terms of test scores,” Guha said. “It takes time to move test scores and it may be too early to know” what effect the programs have on student performance.

The nine districts included in the study were Antioch, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Montebello, Oakland, Pasadena, Porterville, Sacramento City, and West Contra Costa.

* The Irvine Foundation also provides monetary support for EdSource, but has no say in editorial decisions.

Michelle Maitre covers career and college readiness. Contact her and follow her on Twitter @michelle_maitre. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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