Her classmates were anxiously preparing for the big trigonometry test, but 18-year-old Michelle Orozco had bigger worries on her mind: She was their teacher that day.
The senior is a participant in her school’s Educators for Tomorrow academy, a career program that introduces students to the teaching profession. Orozco is “working” this year as an intern teacher at her school, Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino, where – just like any intern teacher – she occasionally steps to the front of the class and leads students through their lessons.
“I didn’t feel like I was a student,” Orozco said of the day earlier this year when she led a classroom of her friends and peers through a test preparation session. “I knew I would help them.”
Career programs like the one Orozco participates in are the future in San Bernardino City Unified, where Superintendent Dale Marsden has set a lofty goal: By 2017, every student in the 49,000-student district will be on a career path.
The goal puts San Bernardino in company with other districts around the state, including Long Beach, Oakland, Sacramento and Pasadena, which have made career preparation an integral part of their curriculum through programs that integrate academics with real-world work experience.
The efforts mirror a statewide shift that is putting an increased emphasis on making sure students graduate from high school with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers. Driving the change is an acknowledgement that more must be done to cut down on the number of students who arrive at college campuses needing remedial coursework, as well as a need to address an increasing “skills gap” in the state, where employers can’t find skilled workers ready to step into the job market.
‘Cradle to career’
For Marsden and others, though, the challenge in San Bernardino is not only about raising student achievement. It’s also a fight for the future of the financially struggling county, where the unemployment rate is 9.3 percent – the statewide rate is 8.4 percent – and the county’s largest city, San Bernardino, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012.
“The education element is very vital to them building a thriving county,” Marsden said, noting a countywide community action plan that calls for building a “cradle to career” approach to bolster academic and personal achievement for the county’s youth.
Dale Marsden discusses the pathway approach in a district video
The community’s challenges are reflected in San Bernardino City Unified, where 97 percent of district students receive free or reduced-price meals, according to a district fact sheet. The high school graduation rate was 75 percent last year, compared to a statewide and national average of 80 percent, and 13 percent of students dropped out before finishing high school, according to the latest state figures.
Among those who did graduate, only 18 percent completed the courses required for admission to University of California or California State University. Statewide, the number was 40 percent, state data show.
District officials are banking on research showing that students who participate in career pathways programs have higher graduation rates than students in traditional high school programs and proceed to college at higher rates. The students also reported feeling more engaged in school and better prepared to tackle real-world challenges, such as working in teams or communicating effectively with others.
Boosted by a $3 million federal Investing in Innovation grant, San Bernardino City is greatly expanding the number of career pathways programs offered in its eight high schools. Programs in visual and performing arts, construction technology, finance, and digital design and communication are joining long-standing district pathways, such as the Educators for Tomorrow program, and others in public safety, green technology and business.
About 20 pathway programs are in development or are already running in the district, with more expected to be added, said College and Career Readiness Coordinator Pam Kempthorne.
“No longer are we just getting kids ready for college, or just for a career,” said Kempthorne, who predicts the district will be “wall to wall” with pathways available to all students by the 2015-16 school year.
Career programs integrate work themes in all elements of the academic curriculum. Students in the Educators for Tomorrow program, for instance, join the program as sophomores and remain with the same group of peers in most classes until they graduate.
Throughout the program, students take courses in teacher training alongside lessons in history and government. Along the way, they get real-world experience in what it means to be a teacher through a “Little Buddies” program, where the high school students act as reading tutors for students at a nearby elementary school. The educators program culminates in the senior year, when students are paired with lead teachers and help guide classes.
All the coursework meets the requirements for admission to the state’s public universities, and partnerships with local universities and colleges even allow some students to take college-level courses that count for university credit.
Yet the work isn’t solely confined to high schools. San Bernardino City’s all-in approach to career pathways relies on introducing students in elementary school to the ideas and skills they need for future success.
“Preventing remediation in college starts in preschool,” said Marsden, who was named superintendent the same year the city filed for bankruptcy. “It (begins with) developing all those pieces so kids are ready for college and career.”
Schools are arranged in “clusters,” Marsden said, where students in elementary and middle schools that feed into high schools can be introduced to some of the career pathways they might encounter in later years.
Students at Norton Elementary, for example, are learning about machining (a metal box made by students is on display in Marsden’s office), a skill they might use at nearby Indian Springs High School, the district’s newest campus. Earlier this year the school inaugurated a high-end medical manufacturing lab, where students are introduced to careers in engineering and manufacturing. A partnership with Loma Linda University and its medical center will allow students to learn the process for making prosthetic limbs or other medical equipment.
A series of open houses will introduce the public to the offerings at each campus, and an open enrollment process will allow parents and students to select the school and program they’re most interested in.
While some may balk at the idea of beginning career preparation in such early grades, one expert said the goal is to introduce students to the concepts and ideas for future success, not about locking them into career choices.
“It’s never, ever meant to be a high-stakes decision,” said Patricia Clark, director for learning and teaching at the College and Career Academy Support Network at University of California, Berkeley. “It’s meant to take interests students have and provide that context for learning (alongside) so you can apply the academic knowledge.”
“A student who’s in a health academy may end up being a lawyer,” Clark added, but the more important result is that a higher percentage of participating students will ultimately graduate, and many of them will proceed to college.
The San Bernardino district seems well positioned for a successful transition to career pathways, Clark said, noting a districtwide commitment to the effort, as well as a focus on quality, integrated teaching to ensure that the pathways are interwoven throughout the academic curriculum.
“This really is meant to be a system approach,” Clark said. “It isn’t just about what’s happening at the school site, it’s about what’s happening at the district and how the district is supporting the work that schools are doing. That’s been missing from a lot of this work.”
To support the effort, the district has created a new position, executive director of community partnerships, and appointed district administrator Hector Murrieta to the job. Murrieta will oversee fundraising to help sustain pathways, ink out new business partnerships and oversee the creation of a foundation to support the programs.
Partnerships with businesses and colleges are critical to the success of the programs, Kempthorne said.
“We want to make sure that when we build these pathways, we are getting kids ready with rigorous academics,” she said, “but also that it’s a continuous thing helping kids to their career paths, rather than just to graduation or just to the university. We’re looking beyond so kids can get viable employment.”
Orozco gives the teaching program high marks for doing just that. Before she joined the program in her sophomore year, she was losing interest in school, getting poor grades, and had even failed a course.
She was intrigued by the Educators for Tomorrow program when she heard about it at a school-wide assembly and signed up. Her fate was sealed, she said, when she “fell in love” with the Rio Vista Elementary School student she tutored through the Little Buddies program. She liked the supportive, family feel of the program, where she got to know her teachers and fellow students during the three-year coursework. This year she served as student vice president of the program, helping arrange social gatherings and encouraging other students.
Now, she’s trying to decide which of three universities she’ll attend in the fall – San Jose State University, Cal State San Marcos or Cal State San Bernardino – and plans to pursue her teaching credential.
“I feel like I’m on a strong course,” she said. “Like I’m prepared and one step ahead.”
Michelle Maitre covers career and college readiness. Contact her at email@example.com 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.