Denise Vela never thought she’d be teaching high school English quite like this, and certainly never as part of an engineering program.

Vela is earning her single-subject teaching credential this year through Fresno State University. She is among the first group of participants in a program that immerses prospective teachers in linked learning career preparation programs. Such programs interweave academics with career themes, giving students practical work experience while also helping them see connections between education and future careers.

Vela takes credential courses at a university satellite program based at Harmony Magnet Academy in Strathmore, a high school in the Central Valley’s Porterville Unified School District. Harmony is the district’s first “wall-to-wall” career academy high school, meaning that all 500 students participate in programs that infuse academics into a work-themed curriculum in either engineering or performing arts.

In addition to taking her credential courses at the high school campus, Vela also is fulfilling her student teaching requirement at Harmony. She is honing her craft alongside veteran teachers in the school’s engineering academy, where – like all academic subjects at Harmony – the English literature lessons are infused with engineering themes.

Courtesy Denise Vela

Denise Vela

The high school students Vela helps teach, for instance, are reading Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” the 2001 novel about the son of a zookeeper who survives a shipwreck and becomes stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Students’ writing assignment that goes with the text: Write a short paper describing how to build a floating structure that would enable Pi to survive his nearly year-long ordeal lost at sea.

“We have the idealistic idea (going into teaching) that we’ll be, ‘Let’s read Shakespeare and we can discuss that,’” Vela said, “but I really am enjoying this more so than I think I would just straight teaching literature. I’m getting to see students’ energy level around learning, getting to see real purpose, rather than how do we make connections based off literature written 500 years ago. This is something that’s modern, that’s asking what is the technology we can use now, and it’s making it much more applicable to their lives.”

Work-based high school programs like the one Vela is interning in are growing across California schools, part of an increased focus on better preparing students for life after high school.

The Porterville program is one of the ways the California State University system, which prepares most of the state’s teaching force, is working to prepare new educators to teach in career pathways. The high school model is vastly different than what has come before, requiring teachers to become familiar with new ways of forming lesson plans and working with students.

“The traditional high school model is a seven-period day of courses that are taught in isolation from one another,” said Nancy Farnan, interim associate dean at the College of Education at San Diego State University. “Teachers aren’t collaborating to create projects together, they’re not connecting with business and industry to think about how their disciplines play out in the world of work. The integrated curriculum, the work-based learning is not what happens traditionally in high school. This is truly a transformation of secondary education.”

“As we go to having 100 percent of students served in these pathways, it’s just going to have to be the default way that student teachers are brought into the practice,” said Gretchen Livesey, director of college and career readiness at Oakland Unified.

Fresno and San Diego are among the CSU campuses offering extensive training to teacher credential candidates in the career pathways approach. Funded through grants from the James Irvine Foundation,* several CSU campuses bring a “linked learning lens” to their single-subject teacher credential program, the credential required for high school teachers. The campuses – Fresno, San Diego, East Bay, Northridge, Los Angles, Long Beach and San Bernardino – started the work in 2008 to respond to district needs.

“We received feedback from schools that were creating linked learning pathways that they couldn’t find teachers that had the knowledge and skills,” Farnan said.

Certificate candidates in the programs receive instruction in work-based learning approaches, how to work with business leaders to secure internships and real-world work experience for students, and learn techniques for collaborating with other teachers to develop integrated lesson plans – much as Vela does with math and engineering instructors at Harmony Magnet. In most cases, credential candidates fulfill their student teaching requirements in career pathway programs to see the practice in action.

“You don’t teach the way you were taught,” said Paul Beare, dean of the school of education at Fresno State. “Schools don’t look like they did. … It’s a whole different set of skills. It requires collaborative planning and project-based learning, which none of us experienced or saw when we went through high school or university. Conventional wisdom just doesn’t work.”

CSU officials say the training is becoming increasingly important as more California high schools are adopting the pathway model. Districts such as Oakland Unified, Long Beach and San Bernardino have pledged to bring the “wall-to-wall” academy model to all their high schools, and the state of California has made $500 million in grant funding available to foster similar career-themed programs through the California Careers Pathways Trust. Research has shown that students who participate in the programs feel more engaged in school, have higher graduation rates and take more of the courses required for university admission than similar students in traditional high schools.

“As we go to having 100 percent of students served in these pathways, it’s just going to have to be the default way that student teachers are brought into the practice,” said Gretchen Livesey, director of college and career readiness at Oakland Unified.

“Teaching in this manner is a way we need to be moving anyway,” Livesey said, noting the project-based learning and collaboration called for under the Common Core State Standards in math and English and the Next Generation Science Standards.

“It’s a big struggle for so many teachers,” Livesey said, “particularly secondary teachers who were told for so many years they needed to be content experts, and there was no room for integration.”

As the focus on career programs grows in California schools, CSU has also expanded its preparation efforts. The system this year launched a graduate certificate program in linked learning, a 15-unit online course that attracted 11 students in its first year. Cal State East Bay in Hayward offers a linked learning-focused training for high school counselors, while Cal State Long Beach has developed a program for candidates seeking administrative credentials.

All campuses within the CSU system integrate some type of pathway training into their education curriculum, to varying degrees, said Joan Bissell, director of education and public school programs at the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

“It’s critically important for us to ensure that our candidates are prepared for it,” Bissell said.

Vela and fellow credential candidate Rene Gutierrez said their training at Harmony Magnet is changing their expectations of their future careers.

“I was always under the impression it was going to be difficult for me to make students intrinsically motivated,” said Gutierrez, who is seeking a credential in history. “I found that when you make content relevant or make it so they can see the purpose of learning, they become motivated on the ground.”

The level of support students receive through the career curriculum was also an eye-opener for Gutierrez and Vela, who said lunchtime and Saturday tutoring sessions are commonplace at the school. “It’s nice to see administrators and teachers working together to be a total support team,” she said.

Neither Vela nor Gutierrez is sure if they will ultimately teach in a career pathway program, but that doesn’t concern program administrators, who see the training as a part of a growing reform effort in California schools.

“We feel like they should not be leaving our program without some understanding of it, even if they go on to a traditional high school,” said Colleen Torgerson, director of Fresno State’s Partner School Program, “because they could be part of the change.”

* The James Irvine Foundation also provides funding to EdSource, but has no say in editorial decisions.

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  1. Tamara 2 years ago2 years ago

    This is awesome. I teach at a Linked Learning school in Hollywood; one of the few officially certified Linked Learning programs around. I happen to also be a graduate of SDSU and credentialed at SDSU. I think I need to look into this LL certificate program. I love the Life of Pi idea. I tend to be on our Engineering team (we have two pathways: Biomedical and Engineering) and it's often tricky making the connections … Read More

    This is awesome. I teach at a Linked Learning school in Hollywood; one of the few officially certified Linked Learning programs around. I happen to also be a graduate of SDSU and credentialed at SDSU. I think I need to look into this LL certificate program. I love the Life of Pi idea. I tend to be on our Engineering team (we have two pathways: Biomedical and Engineering) and it’s often tricky making the connections beyond, “Since I’m the English teacher, I’ll help them with grammar and public speaking skills for presentations).