Schools lining up for piece of $250M ‘career pathways’ fund

High school students participate in the SunPower Solar Science Academy, tying skills in science, math and engineering with career preparation. Credit: SunPower Corp.Update: The California Department of Education officially opened the grant application process on Jan. 21. Check here for more details. 
California schools can expect stiff competition when the state kicks off the application process for a highly anticipated $250 million state fund for college and career readiness programs and partnerships this month.
Educators and business leaders from across the state have expressed keen interest in the California Career Pathways Trust – a one-time competitive grant fund – that seeks to establish and strengthen partnerships between K-12 schools, community colleges and businesses to better prepare students for college and future careers while also bolstering the economy.
Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, successfully pressed lawmakers to set aside funding for the trust in the 2013-2014 state budget to help address California’s high school dropout rate and “skills gap”—the deficit between the skills students learn in school compared to the expertise employers need in the workplace.
The long-awaited grants will be awarded in June to school districts, county departments of education, charter schools and community college districts, to establish regional partnerships or expand existing programs that link academics with real-world work skills.
With the grant deadline set for the end of March, the Department of Education will hold application workshops later this month and during the first week of February. Officials told EdSource that funds will be roughly divided to support up to 10 larger or regional efforts; a group of mid-sized projects; and finally smaller rural initiatives. 
The programs are intended to establish connections between the classroom and work experiences to enhance students’ skills for college or their careers, including through programs offered by Regional Occupation Centers and Programs, which offer students career preparation courses so that high school graduates who are ready to enter the work force.
Other programs are intended to set students on a college path. Schools with similar programs, often called linked learning, typically offer three or more courses emphasizing the practical application of what they are learning in the classroom with one or more high-skill, high-earning career paths, such as technology or engineering, said Hilary McLean, deputy director of the Linked Learning Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the programs.
McLean said the career theme is integrated throughout an academic curriculum with the program culminating in workplace internships, job shadowing, apprenticeships or enrollment in other post-secondary programs. She added that the programs often offer a variety of support services for students, including counseling and supplemental instruction in core subject areas to help guarantee their future success in college and in their careers.
Throughout the state, the programs linking school to career have rapidly gained support among educators and business leaders who contend that the programs can reduce high school dropout rates and improve student achievement while simultaneously reinvigorating the economy.
Diverse field of applicants expected
California Department of Education officials expect a diverse field of grant applicants to vie for a piece of the pathways trust fund in coming weeks. A series of meetings hosted by the department last month to request input about the grants were standing-room-only events. Almost 600 people, representing a wide range of school districts, businesses, colleges and nonprofits, attended the three meetings at locations statewide.
McLean described employer enthusiasm during the meetings as “palpable.” She said creating systems that support connections between employers and schools to provide students with critical hands-on opportunities to interact with businesses are essential to scaling up linked learning programs statewide.
Susanna Cooper, Sen. Steinberg’s principal pre-K-12 education consultant, said the greatest unknown factors about the trust are which companies will become partners with grant applicants and how involved these businesses will be with the programs.
Russell Weikle, director of the California Department of Education’ Career and College Transition Division, acknowledged that in the past, some partnerships between secondary and post secondary education and the business community have not been as strong as they should have been for maximum effectiveness.
To qualify to receive support from the $250 million fund, Weikle said the state is seeking a serious commitment from all participants.  “We want you to be married to the effort,” he said in an interview.
Business commitment will be key
California-based companies, such as Roll Global and SunPower Corp., applaud the state’s commitment to expand partnerships. Both companies expect to be involved in the upcoming grant applications.
“We have to be smart and strategic about preparing the next generation of Californians for the kinds of high-tech careers that are in high demand today,” said Noemi Donoso, Roll Global’s senior vice president for education initiatives.
Roll Global, the parent company of the Paramount Agricultural Companies, which produces Wonderful Pistachios and POM Wonderful pomegranate juice products, is working with its education partners to apply for the grant funds to enhance efforts the company already has underway.
Roll Global is launching a new career tech program at up to three high schools in the Central Valley this fall. The Paramount Agriculture Career Academy will bring local high schools and community colleges together using an early college model.
Every participating student will complete an apprenticeship with one of the Paramount Agriculture Companies, in addition to receiving instruction from community college professors and industry experts.
Donoso said that by 2015, the Academy would consist of five high schools, including its flagship school – Paramount Academy, a Delano charter school, that is already serving students. Bakersfield College, West Hills College, Reef-Sunset Unified School District, McFarland Unified School District and Sanger Unified School District are all Academy partners.
Donoso credits Steinberg’s leadership for putting the state on “the cutting edge of modern work force job training,” but added that “a permanent funding stream would help prepare thousands of California students for well-paying 21st century careers.”
Bill Kelly, managing director of public and education projects for SunPower, said that as the programs produce positive results – improved student achievement and higher attendance rates, for example – CDE officials and lawmakers will support expanding those efforts statewide.
For the past four years, SunPower, a global solar and energy solutions company, has worked closely on career pathway programs with schools in districts like Antioch and Porterville. This summer, 250 students attended the company’s second annual SunPower Solar Science Academy, which emphasizes project- and work-based learning with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.
Kelly said the state grants would help companies overcome the sometimes daunting task of establishing the education partnerships that are vital to the success of any programs.
High academic standards
But Kelly emphasized that developing a rigorous curriculum imbedded with state-of-the-art technology, ultimately has a greater influence on students’ success in programs offered over the course of a school year rather than only in the summer. Companies should also help shape the academic side of the programs, he said. Teachers must also be trained to help students build on their workplace experiences in the classroom, he added.
With the grant deadline set for the end of March, the Department of Education will hold application workshops later this month and during the first week of February. Weikle said the funds will be roughly divided to support up to 10 larger or regional efforts; a group of mid-sized projects; and finally smaller rural initiatives. The department anticipates awarding grants in June.
Grant recipients will receive their funds over three years with the largest amount released in the first year to give them ample resources to initiate their efforts, Weikle said. Grant recipients will have until June 30, 2018, to spend the grant monies.
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