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Investing in Career and Technical Education in Secondary Schools

In today’s comparatively weak job market, millennials in their teens and 20s faced an April 2016 youth unemployment rate of 11 percent. Others are not even looking for work, after becoming discouraged. As a double whammy, many of these young people are carrying heavy student-loan debts. Some young people are just idling in their parents’ home; others are enrolling in college or graduate school as a way of delaying work until (they hope) the economy improves. Others cycle through low-paying service jobs with little chance of meaningful pay increases or advancement beyond low-skill jobs.

The declining economic power of the young is vividly seen in a recent Georgetown University report entitled Failure to Launch: Structural Shift and the New Lost Generation. “In 1980, young men earned 85 cents for each dollar of the average wage; by 2011, they earned only 58 cents on the dollar,” write authors Anthony Carnevale, Andrew Hanson, and Artem Gulish. “In 1981, the wage gap between young and prime-age workers was $13,000; by 2008, the gap increased by 46 percent to $19,000.”

When young people fall out of the work force, or fail to thrive when in it, there are ramifications far beyond economics. Those who are struggling for secure jobs tend to delay other major life decisions, like establishing their own household, marrying a spouse, having children. An estimated one fourth of 18- to 34-year olds still lived with their parents in 2015. Unprecedented in recent history, a solid portion of millennials are expected to remain unmarried until age 40.

Weak national economic trends are exacerbated by other factors that cast a pall over the job prospects of many youths coming out of high school and transitioning into adulthood. These include a mismatch between the skills and credentials employers need and what schools are teaching. Less early work experience by teenagers is also a factor, leaving young people less job-ready in many practical ways (soft skills and technical skills alike) when they do enter the workforce.

The good news is that career and technical education can directly address precisely these problems, and dramatically alter the trajectory of young people—especially young people who are exposed to good vocational training while they are still in high school, and forming their earliest attachments to work. “Those who find work early in young adulthood tend to stay in work going forward,” notes David Fischer of the Center for an Urban Future. “When you give young people the opportunity, they can seize the moment. We need to give young people more moments to seize.”

A 2016 report from the Thomas Fordham Institute did a careful academic study of high-school students to see whether those exposed to career and technical education (specifically, modern CTE courses closely aligned to current industrial needs) benefited or not. “Due to many decades of neglect and stigma…high-quality CTE is not a meaningful part of the high-school experience of millions of American students,” the study noted. And “it’s time to change that,” according to author Shaun Dougherty of the University of Connecticut.

This conclusion flowed from three key findings of the study. Comparisons of students who had been exposed to CTE to those who hadn’t showed the following:

  • Students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to enroll in a two-year college, more likely to be employed, and more likely to earn higher wages.
  • CTE is not a pathway away from college: Students taking more CTE classes are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers.
  • CTE provides the greatest boost to kids who have been lagging most in recent years and need help—boys, and students from lower-income families.

Keith Leaphart, board chairman of the Lenfest Foundation in ­Philadelphia, has a personal connection to this topic. He credits early attachment to work for being the factor that saved his life as an inner-city youth. “The major difference between me and my friends—many of whom ended up in the criminal justice system or dead—was that I was able to get into work early,” Leaphart says. “Instead of ending up as a drug dealer at 12-years-old, I ended up with a paper route.”

Motivated by keystone research by labor economist Andrew Sum at Northeastern University, the Gap Foundation (funded by the clothing retail chain that includes Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Athleta) overhauled its giving strategy in 2006 to focus more acutely on creating job opportunities for teens. The impetus was the finding that early attachment to work yields many positive outcomes, while delays in working produce a domino effect of negative consequences. “If you get your first job at 25-years-old, versus 16- or 17-years-old, you’re really in a catch-up mode for many, many years,” states Gail Gershon of the Gap Foundation. As a result, the foundation shifted all of its ­youth-focused philanthropic funding into career readiness.

This chapter will explore avenues for giving young people valuable vocational experiences during their teenage schooling. The two chapters that follow expand on this by describing models of career and technical education created by for-profit corporations and nonprofit organizations, respectively. Each of these give donors many lessons to glean.

Donor investments in schools or students

Many public-school systems have elements of vocational ed in their curricula. The Denver Public Schools, for instance, offer CTE and STEM pathways in eight high schools. In North Carolina, the state public-school system includes a whole division for career and technical education. It supports and oversees CTE credentialing across the state.

The New York City Public Schools became a model during the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations for integrating good vocational training into high schools. “Some 50 of the city’s roughly 400 high schools are dedicated exclusively to CTE,” reports the Manhattan Institute. And nearly 75 other New York City public high schools run vocational ed programs (220 of them), where students can take vocational subject instruction. Overall, “some 40 percent of New York City teens take at least one CTE course while in high school; nearly 10 percent attend a dedicated CTE school.”

There is a mismatch between what high-school graduates bring to job sites, and what firms need.

The IBM Corporation has supported some very innovative high-level tech training in New York school. Their program Pathways in Technology Early College High School, known as P-TECH, fully integrates technical training into a traditional school structure by blending four years of high school with two years of college. Although piloted in New York City, the P-TECH model has spread elsewhere. In addition to producing excellent technologists the approach appeals to some philanthropists because it mostly attracts minority students who are significantly under-represented in technology fields.

Some philanthropies take a simpler route and choose to undergird vocational education simply by offering relevant scholarships to high-school students as they transition to the next phase of their education. One fine example is the Daniels Fund, based in Denver. The late cable-television pioneer Bill Daniels created a major scholarship problem that helps hundreds of students every year as they graduate from high schools in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. In 2013, the fund decided to incorporate career elements into an effort that until then had been dominated by assumptions that students would enter traditional college tracks. The foundation now provides information about alternative jobs, what they pay, and the competencies and training needed to secure them.

A Daniels scholarship offers unique benefits to students. Each recipient works with mentors to develop a graduation plan, plotting the sequence of courses needed to enter a chosen career path. There is a strong element of accountability in the scholarship. If students fail to meet their end of the responsibilities, they have to pay for that particular semester out of pocket. Yet there are also second chances: Students can reapply for the scholarship.

The Daniels Fund has also established relationships with employers in their four-state coverage area to determine the regional workforce needs. In addition to having access to various forms of technical training that will be valuable in the workforce, scholarship awardees get training in the social job skills. They watch 32 videos on soft-skill development, and participate in a four-day orientation which includes etiquette training, instruction on how to make small talk, and insights on how to pursue true success in life.

Project Lead The Way

One of the easiest and most effective ways for funders to begin supporting career and technical education in public schools is to support Project Lead The Way. This philanthropy-driven nonprofit has become the nation’s most successful provider of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instruction for K-12 students. It began in upstate New York in 1986, where public high-school teacher Richard Blais wanted to encourage more of his students to study engineering. Within a few years, Blais was not only attracting lots of kids to his hands-on classes in digital electronics and other subjects, but leaving them with valuable skills important in technology occupations. With early funding from the Charitable Leadership Foundation, PTLW was launched in 1997 across a network of 12 New York school districts. The next year two New Hampshire schools joined. The first major corporate sponsor signed on in 1999, when Autodesk began to provide students with its world-leading ­computer-assisted-design software.

The program—which combines college-level technology concepts with exciting project-based learning (building and then racing a solar-powered car, creating fighting robots, using laser machine tools and print-jet manufacturing)—proceeded to grow explosively. By 2008, PLTW was being used in schools in all 50 states. The Kern Family Foundation gave the organization a $10 million gift in 2009 to allow further major expansion, and donated a total of more than $26 million over the next several years. In 2013, Chevron made a $6 million donation. The program’s many other donors include the Kauffman, Knight, and ­Conrad foundations, and companies like Lockheed Martin.

At a time when the U.S. has a million unfilled technology jobs, engineering colleges, other educators, and employers have come to prize alumni from the PLTW courses—who score higher on math and tech tests, say they want to study engineering or computer science or other tech-related fields in seven cases out of ten, and drop out of university engineering programs at just one quarter the national rate of attrition. Clarkson University was one of the first high-quality tech schools to offer scholarships directly to PLTW students, and at some engineering schools today between 40 and 60 percent of the freshmen enrolled are alums of the project. Toyota and other employers also now fast-track PLTW graduates into their technical training programs and skilled jobs.

In 2015, more than 8,000 schools (now not only high schools but also middle and elementary campuses) used PLTW curricula. In this way, Project Lead The Way exposed 900,000 students to high-quality technical education. Donors interested in investing in great vocational education at the K-12 level have a ready-made option in funding this nonprofit.

Philanthropies go deep in their home regions

In the sections that follow we will sketch other examples of philanthropic investments in CTE through school systems. In most of these cases the donors made an extended commitment to their region, and ultimately reaped strong results.

The Hendricks Family Foundation and Beloit schools

In Beloit, Wisconsin, a local donor is making investments to bootstrap a successful career academy that’s located in a public school with many students from poor families. Beloit is a small manufacturing town where employers have solid trades-oriented jobs that they can’t fill with local applicants, due to lack of middle-level skills. Philanthropist and ­businesswoman Diane Hendricks aims to help students and companies alike with her initiative.

With a population of 37,000 people, Beloit suffered a stinging blow when advanced manufacturer Beloit Corporation declared bankruptcy in 2000 after nearly 150 years in business. In addition to economic woes, racial tensions have flooded the town. Gripped by race riots during the Rodney King era, Beloit was for a period known for having one of the highest per capita crime rates in the nation. Into this challenging atmosphere stepped Hendricks—chairman of Hendricks Holding Company, president of the Hendricks Family Foundation, and ranked by Forbes as the second most successful self-made woman in the U.S., commanding a net worth of over $4 billion.

Hendricks is aiming for both economic and social revivals in her hometown by making investments in career and technical education. One of her springboards has been Beloit Memorial High School, a large institution with a student population that is about three quarters Hispanic or black, and mostly low income.

An associate degree is the gateway to a livable wage, to a career that has options for promotion and advancement over the years.

Like many other areas of the country, Beloit has been ­experiencing a paradox. Many young people and low-skill adults say they find it difficult to get jobs. Yet employers reported difficulty finding the workers they need. “We’re in a geographic location where unemployment is high, yet local companies have an enormous need for qualified workers,” says Kim Bliss of the Hendricks Family Foundation. The explanation for that gap is skills. There is a mismatch between what high-school graduates bring to job sites and what firms need. The Hendricks effort on vocational education is intended both to make sure that the things students learn are capabilities that employers value, and also to give fresh motivation to students to strive—by showing them that what they are asked to do in high school will help them build a better life once they’re on their own. “Our goal is to help young people see education not just as preparation for college, but preparation for life,” says Bliss.

Hendricks drew inspiration for her career center from a leading vocational ed program located near Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Lehigh Career & Technical Institute is one of the largest such organizations in the country, serving ten public high schools. Its well-regarded offerings include more than 50 programs, in areas ranging from commercial art to various electronic technologies, from cabinetmaking to health professions, from greenhouse management to machine tooling. The programs mix intensive hands-on instruction with solid academic work, and are structured to make sure graduates meet national skill standards established by industry leaders.

With a startup grant from Hendricks, BMHS set up a career academy oriented around manufacturing, technology, and the sciences. Key career pathways offered there include computer programming, advanced ­welding certifications, computer numerical control machining, construction and woodworking, auto mechanics, and engineering (through Project Lead The Way). Numerous apprenticeships are offered in local businesses. The career academy hosts monthly career panels for students, offers intervention services for troubled students, job recruitment fairs, and placement help for further study at community colleges.

Although still in its infancy, this program is an ambitious example of how an energetic donor can connect local high-school students with real jobs and postsecondary opportunities that lead to satisfying careers. And the investment was not huge. The Hendricks Family Foundation sparked this effort with a $300,000 spread over three years.

Bader Philanthropies and high-tech manufacturing

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, Bader Philanthropies has also created an inventive approach to vocational-technical education. As an umbrella organization for two foundations—the Helen Daniels Bader Fund and the ­Isabel and Alfred Bader Fund—Bader Philanthropies has awarded over $30 million in grants specifically targeted to workforce development over the last 25 years. Bader focuses on the Milwaukee area, and is particularly interested in creating work opportunities for minority and low-income populations.

In hope of broadening the economic horizons of soon-to-graduate students in Milwaukee, Bader was first drawn in 2013 to an ambitious school-to-work collaborative known as GPS Education Partners. The nonprofit helps school districts throughout Wisconsin plan, build, and operate education centers that recreate the manufacturing environments of local businesses. GPS Education Centers are staffed by state-certified teachers, and give students a realistic glimpse of what a successful career in modern manufacturing requires and offers.

Beginning in their junior year, participating high-school students experience a combination of hands-on manufacturing experience and academic instruction. They spend two hours every day in classrooms learning math, science, social studies, and practical life skills such as financial literacy. They also get instruction in technical subjects like blueprint reading, computer-aided design, and ­high-performance manufacturing. Students hone and practice this knowledge through six hours a day of practical, hands-on experience in the real work environment of an allied employer.

The program requires two consecutive years without a summer vacation, a full 24 months. That allows students to graduate not only with a high-school diploma but also with a head start on industry-recognized stackable credentials, transferable credits to postsecondary institutions, and an impressive track record of real work. GPS Education Partners is a rigorous example of how schools, businesses, and philanthropists can collaborate and merge operations to benefit students.

Bader Philanthropies has made several successive grants of $50,000 to a GPS center in Milwaukee as contributions to the effort. Bader has also challenged GPS to increase the financial commitments of employer partners. “The biggest challenges are how the employer community thinks about their own investment in the workforce, the talent pipeline, and what they need to contribute to make the partnerships a success in the long haul,” says Bader’s Jerry Roberts.

The Benedum Foundation helps schools teach engineering

The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation is another donor that has had success in bringing career education to public schools. The foundation decided back in 2005 to make technical education a big part of its future work. This made geographic and demographic sense, because a majority of the jobs in the rural parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia that fall under the Benedum Foundation’s area of interest are blue-collar careers or ones that require an associate degree or certification.

“We very much wanted to emphasize the fact that an associate degree is the gateway to a livable wage, to a career that has options for promotion and advancement over the years,” says James Denova, vice president of the foundation, in explaining the philanthropy’s decision.

To mitigate the segregation caused by sending some students to college preparatory schools and others to vocationally oriented schools, the Benedum Foundation prioritizes investments in career academies embedded within public schools. A major benefit is that students needn’t split their day between two different institutions, one academically oriented and the other offering job training; both aspects are housed under one roof.

One example funded by the Benedum Foundation is located in the Chartiers Valley School District of southwestern Pennsylvania. With ­Benedum support, Chartiers added an advanced-manufacturing academy to its high school, where students can earn up to 30 college credit hours and certificates in manufacturing and fabrication through Project Lead The Way. In this program, students bound for a four-year college work right alongside those headed to community college. “The career academies function as majors for high-school students, in much the same way that professional schools function in higher education,” Denova explains.

Impressed by the success of this manufacturing academy, the ­Benedum Foundation offered Chartiers Valley grants totaling $403,000 to allow the school district to become a national training center for Project Lead The Way. This will enable 25 other schools to get their teachers trained at ­Chartiers Valley so they can set up their own Project Lead The Way programs. Part of this process involves a partnership with the West Virginia University College of Engineering, which now confers college credits to Chartiers Valley high-school students.

Benedum’s investment was seconded by $375,000 of philanthropic support from the Chevron Corporation. Benedum focused on paying for the training center coordinator, professional development for teachers, and outreach. Chevron provided money to individual schools in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia so they could purchase equipment and build their own Project Lead The Way programs. The pleasing result is a regional consortium that is bringing Project Lead The Way’s excellent, proven technical education to thousands of students across a three-state region.

Health-care career academies from the Claude Moore Foundation

In 2007, the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation forged a relationship with Loudoun County High School in northern Virginia. Together, they created a health-care academy embedded in the school. The academy trains students in practical nursing, medical lab technology, pharmacy careers, radiology, surgical sterilization, dentistry, medical information, EMT response, and other areas. Students can dual enroll in many of these fields at Northern Virginia Community College while they are still in high school. Some tracks allow students to begin introductory courses in medicine starting in their sophomore year, then select specific medical career tracks in their junior and senior years, and then move directly from high school to a job at INOVA Hospital.

The foundation has already expanded its health career academy model to three other school districts—in Frederick County, Maryland, and in the northern Virginia cities of Winchester and Alexandria. It is studying further expansion, most immediately in Fairfax County and a higher-poverty area of Roanoke. So far, the Moore Foundation has devoted $3.5 million to establishing these health-care career academies, and produced more than 600 graduates.

“One of the key features of the program is that kids receive dual enrollment credit with whatever community college we happen to partner with in that jurisdiction,” says Lynn Tadlock of Moore. “The tuition costs are paid by the program, so basically, they have almost a semester’s worth of college credit at no charge to them.” Foundation director J. Lambert suggests that “if we can help these young people make a good living and obtain self-sufficiency, without having to go to four or six years of college, we’ve beaten the game.”

The Bean Foundation helps mix in creativity and communication

Some funders have tried to combine technical training with the classic benefits of liberal arts instruction. Beginning in 2014, the New Hampshire-based Norwin and Elizabeth Bean Foundation poured energy into an ambitious collaboration at Manchester High School West known as STEAM Ahead (standing for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). This high school lost many of its college-track students when a nearby town decided to build its own high school. New leaders then decided to make ­high-quality vocational training a distinctive offering of Manchester West.

The initiative’s published list of “aspirations” explain its unique positioning: “New Hampshire needs more graduates with skill and knowledge in science, technology, engineering,” starts the mission statement. Yet “the arts and humanities capture…what it means to create.” So this program’s “push for twenty-first century skills includes not only innovation and technology but also creativity, collaboration, and communication.”

The initiative links the high school with Manchester Community College and several campuses of the university system of New Hampshire. This allows students to earn credit for a full year of college classes while they receive firsthand job experience. Their jobs are at local industry partners SilverTech and Dyn, or other firms, and sometimes result in a schedule which has high-school juniors and seniors in the school three days per week and on the job two days per week.

The Bean Foundation started its support with an initial grant of $25,000 in 2014. It next offered that much more as a matching grant if the high school could secure additional funding. SilverTech stepped up, bringing the total gifts to $75,000. Technology firm Dyn, hoping it would eventually be able to hire graduates of the program, later donated $150,000. The pilot effort began with 60 students and has since expanded.

“The project answered a need in the school. It has sound leadership. And it’s an impressive collaboration among a range of stakeholders,” summarizes Kathy Cook of the Bean Foundation.

It’s a trade, entrepreneurship, civics, and character-education program all rolled into one three-year period.

The Irvine Foundation and Linked Learning

The San Francisco-based James Irvine Foundation has created a program in California known as Linked Learning. Designed to ignite the career ambitions of high-school students, it mixes academic instruction with vocational and real-world job experience through job shadowing, apprenticeships, internships, and other opportunities. The effort also includes supports and services to ensure that students stay on course and graduate.

The project grew out of an effort to improve schooling completion rates for low-income Californians age 16 to 24. Foundation staff quickly saw that mixing college prep training with career training in high schools would be essential to success in this. So they explored a number of models across the country that attempted this, and then created their own marriage of academics and vocational prep.

“It answered the question for these high-school students about why these classes mattered. And how they would lead to a family-sustaining wage and a real job, not just to a four-year college—which, for many of them, was modeled nowhere in their environment,” says Daniel ­Silverman of the Irvine Foundation.

Irvine piloted its new program in nine California school districts. The foundation also had to get involved in public relations and ­public-policy advocacy, because existing state policies mandated that students spend precisely determined amounts of time in the classroom. This would have prevented the out-of-classroom career training at the heart of Linked Learning from being possible, and had to be overturned.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Linked Learning’s success is how it has attracted alternative funding sources.

From 2006 to 2015, the Irvine Foundation invested more than $100 million into Linked Learning—making it one of the foundation’s largest efforts. One indicator of its success is that the program has grown to the point that the state of California has now committed $2 billion to support its obligations to running the initiative in public schools. The model has also spread to other states. Ford Foundation funds brought Linked Learning to Detroit, Houston, and other regions. The National Academy Foundation is also bringing it to bear elsewhere.

Linked Learning has produced some impressive results. Participating high-school students completed more classes and had a lower dropout rate and higher graduation levels than counterparts on a conventional academic track. Seven percent more high-school students went on to postsecondary education. And the students who attended the career academies earned an average of $10,000 more in the four years following high school. A total of 18,200 California high-school students were enrolled in 2015.

Linked Learning is continuing to expand. In collaboration with public schools and community colleges, the Irvine Foundation is providing funding to bring the initiative to 63 new districts across the Golden State. The secret to Irvine’s success, according to Silverman, is that Linked Learning is able to convince low-income youth that the academic and career work it asks of them will directly and immediately help them in finding good work. This excites passion in the students. “It’s academic coursework done in the context of career,” he summarizes.

Charter schools make CTE a specialty: The cases of SIATech and YouthBuild Philadelphia

While career and technical education is becoming an element in traditional public schools in more and more cases, it is in charter schools where career-preparedness has often become a full-blown specialty. And because they lack the bureaucratic layers of conventional public education, making the process of creating programs and enacting change far easier, charter schools can be particularly enticing for donor investments. In addition, many charter schools are already focused on reaching at-risk students, so offering workforce training within their halls is often a winning approach for multiple parties.

One high-profile national model for charter-school success in this area is the School for Integrated Academics and Technologies, or SIATech. It operates charter schools in California, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, and New Mexico that are specifically organized to transform high-school dropouts into useful employees. Each campus adjoins a Jobs Corps center administering a federal program that offers occupational training for high-school dropouts.

Through an effective mix of online and in-person instruction, SIATech helps dropouts earn a full high-school diploma instead of a GED. The average student enrolled in their program makes two years’ worth of academic gains in literacy and math in just one year’s time. This academic work is matched with technical training at the Jobs Corps site. With this combination of instruction, graduates emerge with much improved employability.

On a more local level, YouthBuild Charter School of Philadelphia is an instructive model because of its scope, ambition, and fearlessness. One of approximately 226 chapters of the national YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit devoted to helping low-income youths between the ages of 18 and 21 become productive adults, this school offers equal parts academic instruction and real-world job training. Its features four career tracks: building trades and construction, health care, childcare services, and customer service.

Students come from at-risk populations, including those who are aging out of foster care, are single parents, struggle with homelessness, and those with a criminal record. Fully 100 percent of YouthBuild ­Philadelphia’s students are high-school dropouts. Left to their own devices, most of these young people would remain on the economic sidelines—or worse. But this charter school opens healthy possibilities through a powerful mixture of learning and work.

Founded in 1991 and awarded charter-school status in 1997, ­YouthBuild Philadelphia now offers a 12- to 15-month program split between ­competency-based academics that lead to a high-school diploma, and hands-on job training. Mixed in is a foundation of support services that help young people stay on track, plus a community-service pathway (in partnership with AmeriCorps) that helps students develop a pro-social ethic.

The school serves around 200 students annually. Incoming learners are divided into two groups that alternate six-week sessions in the classroom and workplace. After they graduate, some transition immediately to full-time jobs, others pursue postsecondary training. A strong emphasis on dual enrollment and bridge programming helps the students who want to go on to community college or college make that transition.

Work experience runs the gamut. Through the school’s most traditional track, construction, students rebuild and refurbish abandoned houses. They learn the technical side of the business—blueprint reading and cost-estimating—in addition to the manual tasks of masonry, framing, door and window installation, and interior finishing. The pathway culminates in an industry-recognized credential from the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

Community colleges are “one of the best anti-poverty programs in the U.S.”

Another track, health care, provides certification and training in nurse-aide skills through service at nursing homes, ultimately leading to a home health aide or certified nursing assistant credential. The school has also developed a child development associate track. Students put in volunteer hours at daycare centers, and once they have graduated have many entry points into the local workforce, which is short of qualified workers amid the growth of pre-K education in Philadelphia.

Recently, YouthBuild Philadelphia revamped its IT and business administration track. School administrators recognized a growing need for customer service employees in Philadelphia businesses. In a partnership with Starbucks Corporation, the school now guides students into paid jobs at local coffeehouses that also provide pathways into postsecondary education.

To supplement its academics and workforce training, YouthBuild Philadelphia provides each student with case-management services, plus a staff mentor. This helps with the school’s emphasis on developing soft skills. “We are unapologetically comprehensive,” says Simran Sidhu, YouthBuild ­Philadelphia’s executive director. “We relentlessly change and adapt depending on what students need to get where they need to go.”

Another of the school’s key markers is a close working relationship with local employers. Each training track has an advisory board where community business leaders offer input on best practices and changes and updates that may be needed. The school is now exploring new ways of keeping in touch with students after they graduate, to ensure they remain on track. Mechanisms include regular care packages, and monthly offers of transportation passes to make remaining in college easier.

In addition to the public funds it receives as a charter school, YouthBuild Philadelphia has benefited strongly from private philanthropy. Donors fund many of its more innovative services. Local private funders include the Lenfest, JPMorgan Chase, Spruce, Claneil, Gates, Mott, and Walmart foundations. In an interview with us, Lenfest Foundation executive director Stacy Holland said she has never seen a youth-oriented organization better connect at-risk youth with job skills in so short a period of time. “They really do bring out the best in these young people,” she observed.

Although these two examples primarily focus on at-risk youths, many more traditional charter schools also excel in career and technical training. For more examples from around the country, and covering many different populations, see The Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2014 guidebook From Promising to Proven: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Expanding on the Success of Charter Schools.

Robert Luddy brings CTE to low-cost private schools, and American apprenticeships

Funders can extract many recipes for success from the example of North Carolina businessman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Robert ­Luddy in bringing career and technical education to private schools. More than a decade ago Luddy faced a quandary after successfully launching a ­Catholic school (St. Thomas More Academy) and high-achievement charter school (Franklin Academy) in North Carolina’s tech-saturated Research Triangle Park. Franklin Academy’s success as a public charter school had led to long waiting lines of parents coveting a spot for their child. But a state-imposed cap on the creation of new charters blocked Luddy from meeting the demand by launching fresh schools. So this analytical engineer took an inventive approach.

Luddy launched a network of nonprofit, low-cost private elementary, middle, and high schools called Thales Academy. These could serve the rapidly growing population of families in Wake County looking for educational standards without prohibitive tuition costs. The idea was a success from the start, and families have eagerly flocked to the schools in the ensuing years.

Thales Academy boasts a number of novel elements, including classical instruction, budget-friendly tuition ($5,300 per year for grades K-5, $6,000 per year for grades 6-12, with scholarships available for needy students), and a revenue model that relies exclusively on tuition, not taxpayer or continuing philanthropic support. Today, Thales is the largest network of private schools in North Carolina, with five campuses in Wake County.

Another place Luddy innovated is in technical education. ­Luddy is owner of a major manufacturing operation, the leading national ­kitchen-ventilation supplier CaptiveAire Systems. He both has a rich scientific background and recognizes the importance of job-readiness skills. So he created an optional STEM-intensive course of study at Thales’s high schools. Known as the Luddy Institute of Technology, this track uses a special four-year curriculum throughout high school, and many enrolled students devote the summer between their junior and senior years to an industrial internship. From the outset, students are immersed in the fundamentals of engineering: traditional drafting techniques, then computer-aided design through SolidWorks. The basics of mechanisms, energy, statics, materials, and kinematics. The history of engineering and manufacturing. Automation, computer modeling, robotics, and flexible manufacturing systems.

One testament to the program’s effectiveness is the demonstrated market value of its engineering training. In an interview with us, ­Luddy proudly pointed out that second-year students in the Luddy Institute of Technology track complete a certificate in SolidWorks, which alone would enable them to command between $40,000 and $60,000 as employees. “They’re sophomores in high school, and they’ve already got these really extraordinary skills,” he noted.

During their senior year, students complete either a capstone engineering design project or enroll in an apprenticeship. Upon graduating, students are well prepared for either a college track leading to a bachelor’s degree in engineering from a four-year institution, or an apprenticeship in a middle-skill job.

Students who choose the apprenticeship path have another option supported by Luddy: the North Carolina Triangle Apprenticeship ­Program (NCTAP), a program adopted from Charlotte, North Carolina’s Apprenticeship 2000 program. NCTAP is a rigorous 8,000-hour pathway that offers four years of on-the-job work experience, a consistent paycheck beginning in high school, and guaranteed job placement upon completion. The approach is modeled after the Swiss vocational-technical programs, which offer very flexible routes, ranging from apprenticeships through advanced degrees, into high-level technical careers.

NCTAP slots are not solely for Thales students. Instead, ­high-performing sophomores are recruited from numerous public, private, and home schools. The selection process for students is rigorous, and takes around ten months. The program has generating ample interest because the outcomes are enticing: a guaranteed job, a journeyman’s certificate, and an associate degree in mechatronics from Wake Technical Community College. And since their college work is entirely paid by an employer, students leave the program with no student loan obligations and several years of salary behind them.

NCTAP relies on support from participating companies. Administrative costs are low; the most significant expense is the total $140,000 cost for each candidate, which the hiring company covers. That includes the expenses of community college tuition and the student’s salary and benefits over four years. Given this sizable cost, each employer has plenty of skin in the game, and works hard to cultivate the student as a long-term employee. “Our partners want these young people to stay there for their whole careers,” says former engineer Kent Misegades of NCTAP. “If they’re good, they can go all the way to the top of those corporations with no more than a high-school diploma, apprenticeship, and associate degree.”

On average, NCTAP makes around ten placements per year. It hopes to steadily increase that number every year. The program currently has nine corporate partners, including Luddy’s CaptiveAire and the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. With its first class just starting in 2014, NCTAP is still in its infancy. It appears to hold immense promise, however. Matched with the right donors, the program is quite replicable in other places.

Career Cruising software

One practical way donors can help high schools and middle schools to the career education well is to buy them the software that helps students find job niches where they could thrive. There is a powerful tool available today and used by many schools and nonprofits. It’s called Career Cruising, and with a subscription, teachers, administrators, nonprofit staff, and students can access it from anywhere an Internet connection is available.

Students use the software for a multi-step self-assessment process. The “Matchmaker” questionnaire leads students toward various occupational profiles, and helps them create plans to get there. They can also access a treasure trove of career-building aids, including current lists of available jobs in different fields (located by zip code), the range of likely wages, college and vocational programs required for a given vocation, scholarship opportunities, and best high-school classes to take in order to prepare. Career Cruising also has an integrated easily searchable database of internships and apprenticeships. There are even opportunities to interview existing workers in a field via the Internet.

The software is a powerful way to get young people thinking about the connections between what they are learning academically and what they will do vocationally. After using these assessment tools, learners have the option of creating an individualized career plan tailored to a chosen field. Teachers and administrators can track the progress of every student on completing his own assessment and plan.

Businessman and philanthropist Blouke Carus of the Carus Corporation has purchased Career Cruising software for organizations across his home Illinois Valley region. He funds a locally tailored version of the Career Cruising software at Illinois Valley Community College to provide easy access to local internship and job opportunities.

“There is a real need for a vehicle, like Career Cruising, to communicate between companies and schools,” Carus says. “It opens opportunities for students to connect directly with employers, so young people aren’t just cutting grass or flipping hamburgers in their early jobs, but doing something that reinforces their education.”

Carus suggests Career Cruising software as a good beginning investment for donors. Funders can get the platform launched by paying for the licensing up front. And they can be especially helpful in convincing regional industries to enhance the offerings by posting local job information.

The software is available in both English and Spanish. With a donation from the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, the Bronx nonprofit Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (profiled later in this book) has acquired the software so Spanish-speaking parents can use it to inform their kids about college options. This is the kind of practical tool that can open up many secondary opportunities for getting young people without a clear occupational focus to set themselves on a path to accomplishment.

Character also counts: The need to ensure a rounded education

While maintaining an essential focus on technical instruction, the finest examples of CTE programs still offer soft-skills learning—the warp and woof of how to perform and behave on the job—as a highly necessary ingredient in their formulas for success. Particularly among at-risk youths who emerge from unstable families, a vital first step amid vocational learning is formation of character. Honesty, timeliness, reliability, empathy for others—without these, career skills can be useless because the student will find it impossible to get others to work with him or her.

You see how if you take the entry-level job, then earn additional credentials and certifications, you can move up the ladder.

To close out this chapter on vocational investments at the ­secondary-school level, we will profile one historic trade school that does a particularly superb job at weaving essential character education into the technical skill building it provides to its students: the Williamson College of the Trades. Based in an eastern suburb of Philadelphia, philanthropically created WCT has a mission of helping imperiled young men from underprivileged backgrounds equip themselves for a career in the trades that will both be profitable and allow them to live as men of honor. In addition to its academics and career training, Williamson puts an intense focus on faith, integrity, diligence, excellence, and service, aspiring to produce good citizens as well as good workers.

Thanks to its philanthropic endowment, Williamson is the only trades college in the U.S. to provides its students with full scholarships covering tuition, room and board, textbooks, and some personal expenses. It has a special orientation toward students of little financial means. Students apply to the program between their junior and senior year in high school. It then provides them an additional three years of ­training. Enrollees can select from a wide variety of trades—like carpentry, masonry, horticulture, and machine-tool technology.

A three-year study conducted by Tufts University researchers compared the character development of youths at WCT with the progress of comparable young men at nearby schools in the Philadelphia area. Williamson students scored higher on the virtues of diligence, gratitude, honesty, love, reliability, thrift, hopeful future expectations, integrity, and faith when stacked against comparison students. They were also better engaged cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally, and expressed feelings of being better prepared for their careers.

Dr. Richard Lerner and his academic team at Tufts conducted this research at the behest of the late philanthropist Jack Templeton. The John Templeton Foundation wanted to investigate whether WCT’s emphasis on character played any significant role in the school’s success at guiding at-risk men into useful lives. The results indicate that ­character-building education does yield many positive outcomes, and that other schools working with at-risk students and lacking this same focus might do well to add character formation to their curricula.

Lerner and his team were able to track Williamson alums back five decades. “These people not only became successful businessmen,” he told us, “they became entrepreneurs and pillars of the community. So what this school offers is unique in our experience. It’s a trade education. It’s an entrepreneurship education. It’s a civic education. And it’s a ­character-education program, all rolled across one three-year period.”

In 2008, the Williamson School received two large gifts. Henry Rowan donated $25 million, and Gerry Lenfest added another $20 million. These pledges buoyed the endowment that makes it possible for the institution to provide full scholarships.

Lenfest told Philanthropy magazine that “I feel there’s been an ­overemphasis on college education. Vocational training has been ­neglected, but it makes sense for a lot of students.” Rowan stated that “the lack of skills is very severe in the USA. You can’t hire top-skilled individuals in machining and welding and in any of the trades. There’s a terrible shortage of skilled people.”

Lenfest added that in addition to its technical instruction, he was drawn to Williamson’s emphasis on character. “Underneath it all, there is a moral and spiritual element to the education. It’s a very powerful combination. The students there are not just learning a trade. They’re learning to be good citizens. I would love to see Williamson replicated across the country. These young men learn about life. They leave the school prepared to be good workers, good husbands, and good fathers. They are ready to be responsible citizens in their communities. The country needs more of it.”

School founder Isaiah Williamson was a devout Quaker, and WCT retains an active Christian approach. An important piece of its success formula is helping students think of vocation as more than a career and helping them see work as a form of service to God and fellow men, concepts recently explored by Tim Clydesdale in his book The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation. Clydesdale calls for a new paradigm in higher education that engages students in meaningful conversations about calling and purpose in their lives—not just jobs. As they impart essential technical skills, excellent career and technical educators can also encourage this type of thinking, and help equip students to be responsible as well as competent—because we know that stellar, self-supporting workers and conscientious citizens are both of those things. This is ideal territory for robust philanthropic action.

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