Feature

Community Connected Learning

Jobs for the Future develops partnerships to ease student transitions into life beyond high school by ADRIA STEINBERG


Young people are not shy about telling adults what they want and need from their high school. Their list almost invariably includes a desire for more challenge, choice and connection.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of students can count on finding these three C's in their high school experience. They get their challenge from Advanced Placement courses, their choice via a full set of electives and extracurricular commitments and their connection to caring adults through the access provided by their leadership positions in the school as well as from their own families.

For many other young people, high school is a vastly different experience. As they will freely tell you, they do not work very hard in school. In fact, they find it boring. With graduation requirements increasing, they can make fewer choices and have less access to electives, and they do not believe their teachers either know or care about them. One large-scale survey indicates that around 40 percent of our high school students are simply "going through the motions."

As a result, they leave high school inadequately prepared for college or careers. Although most head to some form of post-secondary education (the national average is approaching 70 percent), at least half leave before getting a degree or credential and spend the next five to 10 years in some combination of coursework and youth labor market or temporary jobs.

For many young people, this floundering period can last into their late 20s. They enter adulthood lacking either credentials or the kinds of critical thinking and problem-solving skills and habits of mind and work, such as persistence and self-management that seem to be the basic currency of the emerging economy.


New Relationships
For more than a decade, Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization based in Boston, has documented and worked with school districts committed to addressing these challenges and giving students more help in making the transition into adulthood.

In these communities, education reform is directed not only at improving the academic achievement of young people, but also at strengthening their engagement in and connection to productive activities in the community. As Thomas Payzant, superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, said recently to a gathering of JFF's Connected Learning Communities: "It's not enough to say to students you have to meet high academic standards, but we have to show what that will mean for them once they leave high school."

Such an educational strategy demands that schools enter into new relationships with a variety of community partners and build with them a system of opportunities and supports to help young people move successfully into college and careers. Four key principles characterize this approach to high school reform:

  • Rigor and relevance.

    When students ask, as they frequently do, "Why do I need to know this?" they are searching for a more apparent connection between what they are learning in school and the potential uses of that knowledge in the world beyond school. A robust body of research in cognitive science confirms that such connections serve both to motivate students and provide rich contexts for deepening their understanding of key concepts and sharpening their skills.

    While the focus in many schools and districts on setting and measuring high academic standards is a necessary step to educational improvement, it is also necessary to focus on innovations in teaching and learning that will enlist young people in meeting those standards--particularly at the high school level where students are passive recipients of a steady diet of lecture, whole-class discussion and drill.

    One way districts are making headway in combining rigor and relevance is through sustained professional development for teachers in contextual and project-based learning, such as in North Clackamas, Ore. Although students doing projects may cover fewer topics, they are much more likely to get the combination of cognitive, interactive and problem-solving skills they will need as adults.

  • The school "plus."

    Even with more active and engaged forms of teaching and learning, the high school classroom is not the only or, for some students, even the best setting for learning. It is important to look beyond the box of the insular, self-contained high school to a broader conception of secondary education that takes advantage of the rich variety of learning contexts, teachers and resources a community has to offer.

    In this vision of high school reform, the student experience encompasses not only rigor and relevance in school, but also high-quality learning opportunities in workplace and community settings, where adults support and push them to do their best work.

    Jobs for the Future has coined the term "community-connected learning" to characterize the boundary-crossing nature of the best practices we are finding in high school districts and communities across the country. JFF is working with 20 school districts in 12 communities that are building what we call community-connected learning systems. In these districts, school-community partnerships play an important role in providing quality learning experiences outside of school. Intermediary organizations, such as the Youth Trust in Minneapolis and the Private Industry Council in Boston, are undertaking the challenge of giving large numbers of students structured opportunities for career exploration, including job shadowing, work-based learning and community service. These efforts include new creative alliances with learning programs during non-school hours and in the summer as well.
  • When students ask, as they frequently do, "Why do I need to know this?" they are searching for a more apparent connection between what they are learning in school and the potential uses of that knowledge in the world beyond school. A robust body of research in cognitive science confirms that such connections serve both to motivate students and provide rich contexts for deepening their understanding of key concepts and sharpening their skills.While the focus in many schools and districts on setting and measuring high academic standards is a necessary step to educational improvement, it is also necessary to focus on innovations in teaching and learning that will enlist young people in meeting those standards--particularly at the high school level where students are passive recipients of a steady diet of lecture, whole-class discussion and drill.One way districts are making headway in combining rigor and relevance is through sustained professional development for teachers in contextual and project-based learning, such as in North Clackamas, Ore. Although students doing projects may cover fewer topics, they are much more likely to get the combination of cognitive, interactive and problem-solving skills they will need as adults.Even with more active and engaged forms of teaching and learning, the high school classroom is not the only or, for some students, even the best setting for learning. It is important to look beyond the box of the insular, self-contained high school to a broader conception of secondary education that takes advantage of the rich variety of learning contexts, teachers and resources a community has to offer.In this vision of high school reform, the student experience encompasses not only rigor and relevance in school, but also high-quality learning opportunities in workplace and community settings, where adults support and push them to do their best work.Jobs for the Future has coined the term "community-connected learning" to characterize the boundary-crossing nature of the best practices we are finding in high school districts and communities across the country. JFF is working with 20 school districts in 12 communities that are building what we call community-connected learning systems. In these districts, school-community partnerships play an important role in providing quality learning experiences outside of school. Intermediary organizations, such as the Youth Trust in Minneapolis and the Private Industry Council in Boston, are undertaking the challenge of giving large numbers of students structured opportunities for career exploration, including job shadowing, work-based learning and community service. These efforts include new creative alliances with learning programs during non-school hours and in the summer as well.

    Personal Relationships
  • Small learning communities.

    In a very real sense, all kids go to small schools. Deborah Meier, herself the founder of several small schools, often points out in her presentations that young people deal with the anonymity of large schools by identifying with a group of friends and often a particular subpopulation of students (the jocks, the burnouts, the artsy ones, etc.) But as Meier also emphasizes, most of these small schools are lacking in adults and decidedly unacademic in focus.

    The size of the learning community appears to be particularly important for students who are traditionally least successful in school. Smaller, more personal schooling environments make it possible for a student to form real relationships with adults, who know the student well enough to build on his or her strengths and interests. Such learning communities also encourage conversation and collaboration among teachers as they work toward more student-centered, active learning in the classroom.

    School-to-career reformers have translated the call for small learning communities into a strategy for reorganizing large comprehensive high schools into career academies or clusters organized around real-world themes. Students move with a small cohort of peers and a single group of teachers through a course of study that centers on such areas as communication and the media or health care and medicine.

    From suburban Marin County, Calif., to urban Dade County, Fla., large schools are finding that career clusters can make their programs more personal and coherent, and the smaller, more flexible groupings make it easier to collaborate with external community and work partners. The attraction of career academies is not hard to explain: They promise a meaningful context for students' academic work across several disciplines, a culture of high expectations derived from real-world standards and a structure and opportunity for exploring the world of adults.

  • Safe passage to adulthood.

    Young people in the United States come of age in a society that lacks a well-developed set of policies and institutional connections to help them make the transition to adulthood. Although most teen-agers hold jobs and many enroll in some form of post-secondary education, these institutions do not work in concert with the high school.

    For the most part, school systems do not see their responsibility as reaching into the years beyond high school. With far too many students to serve, high school guidance counselors are barely able to keep up with the college application process of their seniors. High schools usually publish information on students' college-going plans, but do not have the staff or funds to do any kind of follow-up. In short, young people do not get the guidance they need, especially given the complexity and size of the post-secondary sector and fluidity and insecurity of the labor market.

    To create a more seamless environment for young people, high schools in some communities are forging stronger links with colleges. For example, New Hampshire has developed career learning standards that include high performance skills such as communications, problem-solving and teamwork and is working with four school districts to pilot a competency-based transcript designed to give post-secondary partners information that encompasses both academic achievement and achievement of the career learning standards.
  • In a very real sense, all kids go to small schools. Deborah Meier, herself the founder of several small schools, often points out in her presentations that young people deal with the anonymity of large schools by identifying with a group of friends and often a particular subpopulation of students (the jocks, the burnouts, the artsy ones, etc.) But as Meier also emphasizes, most of these small schools are lacking in adults and decidedly unacademic in focus.The size of the learning community appears to be particularly important for students who are traditionally least successful in school. Smaller, more personal schooling environments make it possible for a student to form real relationships with adults, who know the student well enough to build on his or her strengths and interests. Such learning communities also encourage conversation and collaboration among teachers as they work toward more student-centered, active learning in the classroom.School-to-career reformers have translated the call for small learning communities into a strategy for reorganizing large comprehensive high schools into career academies or clusters organized around real-world themes. Students move with a small cohort of peers and a single group of teachers through a course of study that centers on such areas as communication and the media or health care and medicine.From suburban Marin County, Calif., to urban Dade County, Fla., large schools are finding that career clusters can make their programs more personal and coherent, and the smaller, more flexible groupings make it easier to collaborate with external community and work partners. The attraction of career academies is not hard to explain: They promise a meaningful context for students' academic work across several disciplines, a culture of high expectations derived from real-world standards and a structure and opportunity for exploring the world of adults.Young people in the United States come of age in a society that lacks a well-developed set of policies and institutional connections to help them make the transition to adulthood. Although most teen-agers hold jobs and many enroll in some form of post-secondary education, these institutions do not work in concert with the high school.For the most part, school systems do not see their responsibility as reaching into the years beyond high school. With far too many students to serve, high school guidance counselors are barely able to keep up with the college application process of their seniors. High schools usually publish information on students' college-going plans, but do not have the staff or funds to do any kind of follow-up. In short, young people do not get the guidance they need, especially given the complexity and size of the post-secondary sector and fluidity and insecurity of the labor market.To create a more seamless environment for young people, high schools in some communities are forging stronger links with colleges. For example, New Hampshire has developed career learning standards that include high performance skills such as communications, problem-solving and teamwork and is working with four school districts to pilot a competency-based transcript designed to give post-secondary partners information that encompasses both academic achievement and achievement of the career learning standards.

    Bottom Up or Top Down
    The story of the last five years of reform in North Clackamas, Ore., is illustrative of how school districts are combining these four key elements to drive change, especially at the high school level.

    To a first-time visitor, the 14,500-student North Clackamas district may seem like an unlikely site for a school reform effort based on school-to-career approaches. Serving three small communities outside of Portland, Ore., North Clackamas is a fairly homogenous suburban district. Indeed, the district's school-to-career director had to overcome a widespread perception of school-to-career as synonymous with vocational education--a program of questionable value, at best, to the largely college-going graduates.

    As a first step in demonstrating the compatibility of school-to-career with rigorous academics, the coordinator brought in an expert in project-based learning, a member of Jobs for the Future's national faculty, to lead intensive workshops for a cadre of 25 teachers from across the system. Early signs of success from the work of this cadre kindled support in the district office. As Sue Shields, head of staff development explains, "Teachers were energized and revitalized by the process. They wanted to stick to it."

    In the second year, this cadre of teachers received continuing support from the consultant as they tried out the projects they had designed in their classrooms, and a second cadre began. Excitement mounted as teachers began to see improvements in student attendance and perseverance in completing tasks.

    At the same time, the effects of state education policy were beginning to be felt in North Clackamas. The Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century set content and performance standards, including a certificate of initial mastery, a gate all students would have to pass through at the end of 10th grade. The act also called upon school districts to reorganize the last two years of high school around focused programs of study and career-related experiences through which students would meet career-related learning standards, as well as academic standards and earn a certificate of advanced mastery. Employers in the Portland region were active proponents of this legislation, advocating at the state level for the two-level certificate approach.

    At the district level, Superintendent Ron Naso (at left) initiated a systemic planning process in North Clackamas, which included school-to-career as a vehicle for whole school change. As Naso put it: "We've got to get the relevance, the applied component into the requirements to help drive staff development and build the energy to make change in the school."

    Understanding that "the driving force for change is the definition of exit requirements," Naso set up a districtwide task force to develop a new set of graduation requirements.

    By this time, district curricular leaders realized that the work teachers were doing on project-based learning had the potential to help them combine an emphasis on academic rigor and career competencies. In fact, professional development in project-based, community-connected learning had become a cornerstone of districtwide systemic reform.

    Since the workshops began in 1995, nearly 40 percent of the teaching force (more than 200 teachers) have participated in institutes and received coaching in project-based learning. Professional development achieved the focus and scale necessary for systemic impact.

    What is particularly instructive is the way bottom-up has met top-down reform in the redesign of high schools in North Clackamas. As a result of their work in project-based learning, several teachers began a small interdisciplinary program for 9th and 10th graders in one of the high schools.

    Inspired by the success of that model in improving student attendance and grades and informed by the state guidelines for reorganizing the upper grades into focused programs of study around broad career themes (for example, arts and communications, health services, business and management, human resources and natural resource systems), all three high schools now are carrying out whole-school redesign.

    The teachers who participated in the cadres are playing a leadership role in this process. From their experience creating contextualized learning projects for their own classrooms they have a concrete sense of what it takes to design career majors and to integrate interdisciplinary and career-related learning experiences into academic courses.

    This fall North Clackamas will start focused programs of study for the class of 2002. It will take several years to phase in career-related learning experiences for all of these students. To make this possible, the district is part of a regional approach to employer recruitment, sharing a computerized database of 3,000 employers with 30 nearby school districts. The Oregon Business Council, the Business Education Compact and the North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce help to mobilize business support for the redesign efforts.

    Looking Onward
    As the North Clackamas story illustrates, school reform involves not only school-based changes, but also fundamental shifts in the relationship of the district office to the schools and of the schools to other institutions and organizations in the community. To be sustained, reform must be systemic, altering how schools are organized and how major systems--schools, employers, community-based organizations and government agencies--interrelate.

    Based on lessons from pioneering communities, it is tempting to want to draw up a blueprint for how to create a community-connected learning system. The most important thing, however, is for a community to take advantage of its own particular combination of strengths and assets in addressing the needs of its young people. In a small suburban community, such as North Clackamas, it is possible for professional development in project-based learning to achieve the focus and scale necessary for systemic impact.

    In a larger, urban district, with many competing constituencies, the starting point might be quite different. In Boston, for example, a compact among community partners to improve the education and economic opportunities for young people--a Private Industry Council with a strong strategic vision and staff capacity to serve as an intermediary between schools and employers-- and the entrepreneurial savvy of the school-to-career director have been the essential ingredients in moving an agenda of community-connected learning.

    No matter how a community puts together its assets, education in the 21st century will be richer in technology and less classroom-bound than the 20th century model of high school. Furthermore, in the world that is emerging with its global markets, uncertain work prospects and corporate makeovers, academic knowledge is only one part of the equation.

    The emphasis needs to expand beyond what students know to include both what they can do (how well they can apply what they know to a particular problem or issue) and what they will do with their knowledge and skills when they are in the world, dealing with ever-present complexities. In other words, the question is not just "Have the test scores gone up?" but "Have students internalized the habits of mind and intelligent behaviors to approach the novel, messy, ambiguous situations and challenges of the real world?"

    Adria Steinberg is a program director of Jobs for the Future, 88 Broad St., Boston, MA 02110. E-mail: asteinberg@jff.org. She is the author of Real Learning, Real Work: School-to-Work as High School Reform.