With 77% of Colorado employers reporting that it was “very or somewhat difficult” to find qualified candidates for jobs — and 34% stating that schools have not properly prepared students for jobs – a solution is needed. Work-based learning and career exploration efforts can help, but school districts, particularly districts in rural areas with smaller budgets, do not always have the time and resources to devote to building business relationships. These relationships are essential to offering work-based learning opportunities for students, but can fall by the wayside because building and maintaining these relationships is time-intensive and often falls on busy teachers with competing responsibilities.
Through Homegrown Talent Initiative, rural school districts across Colorado have explored different ways to engage their local business community and build mutually beneficial partnerships to increase career exploration and work-based learning for students. In the last year, we have noticed three key components of successful partnerships:
Homegrown Talent Initiative (HTI) understands the tension between solutions and resources, and has been working with rural school districts across Colorado to encourage innovation in education and expand career-connected learning opportunities based on the strengths and needs of local community. This effort recognizes the unique nature of rural education and encourages community collaboration and cross-district collaboration to better support students and districts in career-exploration and economic development.
Participating HTI districts also receive coaching and technical assistance from education implementation partners. This third-party support helps districts build capacity as they introduce new career-connected programs to their schools. Coaching supports focus heavily on equity, encouraging districts to consider how to engage students furthest from opportunity who have not historically engaged in these types of opportunities.
Schools and businesses looking to partner to increase career-connected learning do not always know where to start. We suggest starting small – before jumping into a longer commitment of hosting five interns for a semester, a new partnership could consider hosting a career presentation at the school or a job shadow afternoon at the business. If this smaller event goes well, the two organizations have a strong foundation on which to build a more robust partnership. East and West Grand school districts experienced this success, starting with easy ways for businesses to engage with students, and have built a robust internship program from those business partners.
Schools and businesses need to work together to build a vision of successful partnership. A school district approaching a business with a list of students looking for career experience may work in the short term, but will not lead to lasting partnership because the school did not consider what the business may need or want. Conversely, a business only offering to visit the school once a year for a job fair but not considering other ways to engage is missing a host of opportunities to reach the community and potential customers. For example, Holyoke has spent the last year diligently collecting feedback from students and business partners to better understand the skills and opportunities the district should offer students. Not only did the surveys inform the school’s course offerings for next year, but employers had a say in the skills and experiences they are looking for from potential interns and employees.
Schools and communities often work alongside one another, but remain separate in the siloes of their work. Clear Creek school district has begun to break down these barriers by attending local chamber of commerce meetings, county commissioner meetings, and other industry group events. This has allowed them to build those business partnerships by meeting business where they already convene. Through this relationship building, local businesses now have a better understanding of what types of opportunities the school is hoping to provide students, and where their business may fit in. Clear Creek Superintendent Karen Quanbeck reflects on this change: “One of the biggest changes we’ve seen from HTI is sustainability in Clear Creek. We have strengthened community relationships and partnerships. It’s turned our siloed community into a group that is working together across so many different avenues and increasing opportunities for students.”
Career-connected learning is a benefit to employers, schools, and students and it’s important to build strong partnerships to facilitate these opportunities. HTI is still a relatively new effort, and it is too early to quantify the direct benefit to schools and communities, but the Center on Reinventing Public Education recently released a report outlining their findings on the early impacts of HTI – “HTI offers a glimpse into the ingredients for enduring systemic change. These school districts began to make progress because community and education leaders together invested their energy and creativity in a new shared vision of success for students and communities.”
For businesses that want to increase their social impact in their communities and reimagine our current education system, this career-connected learning continuum is a great resource when thinking about possible ways to effectively engage.