Often, figuring out what you want to do involves discovering what you don’t want to do.
That’s what happened to a Lake Forest High School student participating in the school’s new work based learning program.
The girl thought she wanted to be an environmental engineer, said Evanthia Filiou, assistant principal at the high school. So she started her workplace experience, where she discovered to her chagrin that being an environmental engineer didn’t suit her.
“She thought her parents were going to be upset with her because she didn’t like the experience,” Filiou said. Instead, her mother’s response was that this was a great thing – figuring out what you like is the point.
The student switched to an occupational therapy focus and now has scholarship offers from multiple universities.
This year, Lake Forest School District has joined a growing statewide effort to better prepare students for a wide range of careers through career training and workplace experience.
Lake Forest has long had internships, Filiou said, but the goal with the new program is to bring that up a level with exposing students to the world outside school.
“This work-based learning model is a way to provide that opportunity to a young person to help figure out who they are, what they want to do,” said Jonathan Wickert, education associate in the career and technical education work group at the Department of Education.
The state has had its Delaware Pathways program for a number of years now, but in the past few years has begun offering a new model for workplace experience, Wickert said, aiming to make sure students are having a quality experience and learning the skills they need to reach their goals.
The career education program started about seven years ago. Wickert said in the years afterward the state focused on building a network of resources for students like colleges and community organizations, as well as education for students on career paths. In the past few years, they have been trying to build up the third leg of the stool: Practical workplace experience. Part of that involves connecting with a larger network of employers who are able to offer spots to students.
Another facet is building a set of standards to ensure students aren’t just getting an internship credit for doing rote work somewhere, but that the employer is working in partnership to help them reach their goals so the student is not just “a cog in a machine” but participating in a meaningful way.
These standards spell out what students need to be doing and getting out of the experience, like setting career goals, learning to conduct themselves appropriately in the workplace, developing a learning plan with employers and teachers, examining employers’ leadership styles and more.
How all that plays out, Wickert said, is flexible. The Department of Education gives local schools leeway since their circumstances and needs vary.
“Everyone’s tackling it a little differently,” he said.
Participation in the career pathways program has grown steadily over the years. In 2015-16, 1,850 students in the state earned credit in such a program, according to statistics from Rodel, a nonprofit aiming to improve Delaware education. By 2019-20, that had grown to 15,056, more than a third of Delaware high school students.
Participation from districts and charters is also growing. Wickert said a majority of schools in the state have adopted the new model.
With Lake Forest just getting rolling, about 30 high school students there are participating so far, Filiou said. Also, most of the work-based learning this year is happening within the district itself. Next year, their goal is to have more students involved and build more relationships with local employers so students can get out into more workplaces and broaden their experience.
Although schedules can vary, participating students might attend classes in the morning and work on the job in the afternoon. They earn credit and have an advisor assigned to them, Filiou said.
Lake Forest wants to make sure that no matter what’s next for students, be it college, a trade or the military, they have the 21st century skills they’ll need, Filiou said. “And we also thought right now this is really important, coming out of a year that was so remote, and there was not so much … face to face interaction and communication and collaboration, that we thought this was a good time to launch just to get our kids back out there."
The increasing focus on work based learning in Delaware is an acknowledgment of a change over the years in society, education and the economy, where simply earning a high school degree may not be enough for students to reach their goals.
And it may not meet business's needs either.
“We now confront the incongruous reality that Delaware employers are hiring, but can’t find enough qualified applicants,” the Delaware Pathways steering committee wrote on the program’s website. “This is frustrating because we know that many Delawareans could do the work, but may not have the right skills. We can change this trend by better connecting educators and employers.”
It used to be a different calculation, Wickert said: You’re going to college, or you’re going into the workforce.
Now, “The reality is, no matter what kind of career you enter, we all need some kind of work experience, and we all will be required to have some type of post-secondary education to advance.”
The importance of connections also looms large.
“When I was growing up, you got a job because of your own personal network,” Wickert said, noting that he got his first job because of family connections. Career training is a way to get students into networks they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Wickert said he emphasizes to schools that early exposure to workplaces is good for all students, not just those in a career and technical education track.
“We’re really helping students understand how to navigate an environment that they haven’t necessarily had robust exposure to, and we’re providing them the supports to navigate it successfully,” he said.
“There’s a vast world out there,” Filiou said. “So we wanted to make sure that as our seniors continue on to their post-secondary plan, that we’re just providing them with the most opportunity that we can.”
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