College and career success begins with K-12 schools

July 12, 2022

Anaheim Union High School District student ambassadors in front of City Hall.

As the superintendent of Anaheim Union High School District, I’d like to applaud the historic proposed investment in education by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature.

I also commend the governor’s focus on improving access, affordability and equity as a measure of accountability accompanying this funding. The proposal calls for the University of California system to increase four-year graduation rates by almost 4 percentage points and close achievement gaps between students from under-resourced communities and their more affluent peers.

But colleges cannot make this happen alone; they will need the help and partnership from K-12 schools and local leaders. One place to look for answers is in Orange County, where the Anaheim Collaborative — a coalition of the city of Anaheim, local community colleges and universities, businesses, and not-for-profit organizations — has helped the Anaheim Union High School District significantly boost college success rates at UC colleges over the last eight years. For example, despite coming mostly from underrepresented populations, Anaheim Union students at universities and community colleges are persisting and graduating from college at higher rates than their peers (almost 10 percentage points higher). And Anaheim’s college-going Hispanic population is graduating from college at a higher rate than peers across the state.

Why have our students had so much more success in accessing and persisting in college? One reason is that Anaheim leaders have shifted away from schools’ traditional obsession with preparing for standardized tests to focus on college and career preparedness that develops students’ 5Cs — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and compassion. This approach builds students’ career and life skills and provides young people with a stronger sense of identity and purpose.

In our district, young people start exploring careers as early as seventh grade and cultivate their leadership skills by speaking out and taking action on civic issues throughout middle and high school. Our schools partner with the local businesses to provide internships and mentorships, and Anaheim schools have one of the biggest college dual enrollment programs in the state — providing high school students access to subjects like cybersecurity, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

Good jobs and careers are a critical social justice issue. They are the foundation for elevating families out of poverty. The governor’s proposed investment in students’ college success is an opportunity for California to advance equity across the state. However, it will take more than money to achieve success. Educators from schools and community colleges, business and community leaders will need to work together to build ecosystems of learning and support for our students, and we will need to discard the narrow educational approaches that have failed students for decades.

Those approaches too often include a single-minded focus on standardized tests linked to punitive accountability for teachers and narrowing of the curriculum to what’s tested.  I have heard too many business leaders lament the lack of “soft” and “hard” skills among college graduates such as emotional and relational intelligence as well as technical, job-specific expertise and knowledge.

We must reconfigure our schools and our thinking to make sure our students have the skills they need to succeed in college and the world outside.

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Michael B. Matsuda is the superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District

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