School Network Readies Students for College and Career

To the national debate about whether students should pursue career and technical education or college preparation, a California program wants to add an emphatic declaration: Yes.

The refusal to choose between one instructional emphasis or the other symbolizes the work being done to build career pathways in nine school districts as part of Linked Learning, an initiative cited as a national model of career and technical education.

One of the places the project is unfolding is in a cluster of high schools in a district that serves a predominantly Latino, low-income community here among the Central Valley’s olive and orange groves.

At one school, a half-dozen students huddle around big desktop computers. The complex formulas they’re calculating and programming into the computer will tell a robot how to restack blocks of blue and red cubes. When they give the robot the command, the job comes off perfectly. Barely old enough to drive, these students are learning to negotiate the real-world engineering that shapes manufacturing.

A few hallways away, teenagers master the high-tech tools of the performing arts world. Aspiring musicians sit at rows of electric pianos, listening through headsets to the music they create as it is automatically notated on computer screens. At another school, students juggle computers and soundboards to produce a morning broadcast.

When they’re not in classrooms, students from these schools are out in the community, working in local engineering companies, staging musicals with preschoolers, or helping design sound for a street concert.

The point, leaders of the work say, is to create a more relevant, engaging school experience for young people by blending the rigorous core academics they need for college with the career and technical education that prepares them for good jobs, and to do it in an applied, hands-on way that includes real-life work experience.

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Go to Community College, Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

In early 2000, Florida’s work force wasn’t keeping pace with demand. The state decided that a then-novel credential, a bachelor’s degree from a community college, was the solution. By all accounts, the plan is working.

The new bachelor’s degrees were initially focused on education, health care, and information technology. Even as the job market has shrunk since then, demand has remained high for nurses and teachers in particular fields, including math, science, and special education. The programs have also grown to include public safety and biomedical sciences, to keep up with Florida’s changing work-force needs.

Interviews with colleges, students, and employers show that job-placement rates are strong. Many of the students who earn bachelor’s degrees from community colleges earn higher salaries than their counterparts from public, four-year universities, because the community colleges’ curricula are tailored to well-paying jobs waiting for them upon graduation.

And enrollment continues to grow: Last year more than 13,000 students—most of whom already had earned associate degrees—sought baccalaureate degrees at the state’s community colleges, compared with 2,400 in 2005. With the education level of Florida’s work force still trailing that in many other states, policy makers hope the trend continues.

Nationwide, 17 states now allow community colleges to award baccalaureate degrees, whether bachelor’s of science or bachelor’s of applied science. Some community colleges have become four-year institutions. Other states, like California, are considering community-college baccalaureates.

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