Though he just finished his sophomore year of high school earlier this month, Joshua Carreon is no stranger to college or the workplace beyond.
As part of his coursework at Wonderful Agriculture Career Prep, just north of Bakersfield, he belongs to the school’s agriculture business pathway, an innovative course of study that includes agriculture science and technology in high school, college-level business classes from Bakersfield City College and a paid internship at Olam Farms, an almond grower in the region. He’s also guaranteed a job in one of the region’s agriculture companies when he graduates high school, or after college, if he decides to attend.
“I’m learning about the agriculture industry from people who do this professionally,” he said. “It’s real experience that will lead straight to a job. It’s the best education I can hope for.”
Wonderful Agriculture Career Prep is one of nearly 50 collaboratives across California providing tens of thousands of students with hands-on learning that blends academics with job training in industry sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, construction, engineering, health care, computer science and many other fields where high-paying jobs await.
The collaboratives were formed or expanded as part of a $500 million state program, the Career Pathways Trust, that helps prepare high school students for California’s high-demand jobs. Experts in business and college and career readiness say these consortia are providing some of the best opportunities for student success beyond high school.
“We’ve never seen this level of alignment as kids are starting their career training while they are still in high school,” said Matt Coleman, executive director for the Educational Policy Improvement Center, an Oregon-based nonprofit focused on research and advocacy in college and career readiness.
“California is unique in the level of investment in these partnerships, which are helping redefine the high school experience,” he said.
Renah Wolzinger, a research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco education research and training nonprofit, said these regional partnerships, each with different career goals, work best in a state with such a wide range of job opportunities and populations.
“You have regions where industries like manufacturing are growing at such a fast rate that employers have had to bring in workers from out of state,” she said.
Through these partnerships, employers are now helping bring the skills needed in the industry into the classroom, Wolzinger said.
“That not only benefits students, it benefits employers and the local economies,” she said.
In the Central Valley, the Wonderful Agriculture Career Prep collaborative includes six school districts, three community colleges, Paramount Academy charter school, and six major agriculture production and processing companies.
The goal of the collaborative, which received an $8.7 million Career Pathways Trust grant in 2015, is to prepare students in agriculture-themed pathways such as agricultural business management, agricultural mechanics and plant science.
“California is unique in the level of investment in these partnerships, which are helping redefine the high school experience,” said Matthew Coleman, executive director for the Educational Policy Improvement Center.
For The Wonderful Company, a lead partner and one of the nation’s largest agricultural companies, the collaborative provides the dual benefits of helping the company prosper and the communities it serves thrive, said Noemi Donoso, the company’s vice president of education initiatives.
“We have a workforce pipeline challenge in the region. This industry is becoming more and more technologically advanced, and it was very challenging finding qualified workers,” she said.
Donoso said that besides helping train the next generations of agriculture workers, the collaborative has helped reinvent the educational model for the industry, introducing them to such concepts as computer-aided design, hydroponics, plant machine operations, information technology, computer programing and plant science.
“In the beginning, schools and colleges were not up to speed with the skill set ag companies now need,” she said. “There were stereotypes that these jobs were minimum wage and for the unskilled.”
About 1,750 middle and high school students participated overall in Wonderful Agricultural collaborative pathways last year. As part of the program, students are required to complete the A-G coursework, the sequence of classes required for admission by the University of California and California State University systems. Students are also guaranteed paid internships after graduation at working farms, with some finding full-time jobs, while others go on to college to pursue degree programs in the industry.
“We would not be able to provide all these resources if these different groups didn’t come together,” Donoso said.
In the Sacramento Region, the Capital Region Academies for the Next Economy, or CRANE, is one of the state’s largest partnerships. It received a $15 million Career Pathways Trust grant in 2014, and it now includes 16 school districts, six colleges and universities, four county offices of education and about a dozen industries, civic and government agencies, and community groups in Sacramento and the surrounding region.
“Our main job is to bring teachers, students and employees together, to align education across these different systems,” said Louise Stymeist, CRANE’s project manager.
Last year, 11,600 students from high schools throughout the area were enrolled in one of 68 career pathways focused on six industry sectors – advanced manufacturing, agriculture, construction and clean energy, engineering, health services and information technology.
Other CRANE collaborative partners such as Intel, Home Depot, Aerojet Rocketdyne Foundation, and Ford Next Generation Learning worked with career technical education teachers to develop courses that better prepare students for jobs in the industry sectors. Outside the classroom, students work in paid internships, go on regular tours of businesses and are teamed up with mentors.
“Before these collaboratives, teachers didn’t know if what students were learning was translating into the skill sets businesses required,” Stymeist said. “Now, our employers are actually welcoming in teachers so they can observe on-the-job professionals working in fields related to their instruction.”
Cristian Rojas, who just graduated this month from Antelope Valley High, just north of Sacramento, was enrolled in one of CRANE’s communications technology pathways, which included communications technology courses in high school, and college-level computer programing classes at Sacramento City College.
“I really received a strong foundation for my career by participating in the program,” he said. “It truly was a well-rounded education that wouldn’t have been possible without CRANE.”
In Southern California, the Los Angeles Regional Coalition for Linked Learning includes the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Kaiser Permanente Southern California, Gold Star Foods, Southern California Gas Company, Tyson Foods, Time Warner Cable and the Boeing Company.
“School district boundaries don’t have any relevance to labor markets or employers,” said David Rattray, executive vice president for education and workforce development for the L.A. Chamber Area of Commerce. “So when you’re creating a system to prepare more qualified workers, the regional approach of bringing the different stakeholders under the same umbrella is the most efficient way to do it.”
This collaborative, which received a state grant of $15 million in 2014, targets industry sectors that include health science, engineering, manufacturing, business, information technology, media and entertainment, and environmental science. About 15,000 Los Angeles Unified high school students were enrolled last year in one of the district’s 36 career pathways.
Kaiser Permanente helped the district develop one of the medical science pathways, where students spend part of their semester at a Kaiser hospital, checking in patients, observing surgeries and cleaning surgical equipment.
“Before this consortium was established, you would have seen dozens of schools each reaching out to places like Kaiser, asking for help setting up internships,” Rattray said. “These businesses just didn’t have the resources to work with those schools individually.”
Students in information technology pathways study alongside IT professionals at Southern California Gas Company, Time Warner and other companies, helping set up Wi-Fi networks, installing electrical circuitry and debugging equipment.
“Because of these partnerships, employers will be getting the talent they need, those who are ready on day one,” Rattray said. “That strengthens our business and it strengthens opportunities for students.”