Three Ways Louisiana Is Getting Students Career-Ready

09/30/2016 01:55 pm ET

By requiring industry-based credentials for CTE students and encouraging all students to interact with industry professionals, Louisiana’s Jump Start program is revolutionizing career education

In Louisiana, only 19 percent of high school students go on to receive a four-year college degree. There are plenty of high-paying jobs available for the other 81 percent, but matching students with these opportunities and making sure they have the right credentials—like a two-year degree or industry certification—has always been a challenge.

For years, Louisiana students have been able to earn a Career Diploma as an alternative to a traditional academic diploma. But the program was seldom used, and students working toward a Career Diploma weren’t being adequately prepared for jobs in high-demand fields.

In short, there was little or no connection between Louisiana’s career education strategy and its workforce needs. State leaders knew they needed a better approach.

“We began to develop a program that would be more responsive to students and their futures,” says Dave Lefkowith, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Louisiana Department of Education.

State government officials began designing a new strategy in 2012 in conjunction with representatives from business and education. The result of their work is an initiative called Jump Start, which takes a revolutionary approach to career and technical education (CTE) that could serve as a model for other states.

To ensure alignment with local workforce needs, a series of 10 Jump Start regional teams have developed courses and workplace experiences around 47 graduation pathways so far, with a 48th pathway—early childhood education—currently in development. These regional teams consisted of local school systems, two- and four-year colleges, industry representatives, and economic development councils, among other stakeholders.

Jump Start courses will be offered to all Louisiana students, regardless of their college or career plans. Students who want to earn a Jump Start Career Diploma instead of an academic diploma must complete a sequence of nine courses within their chosen pathway, at least one of which must be a career readiness course that helps students learn essential workplace behaviors and communication skills.

Having school leaders co-design required sequences of CTE courses in collaboration with industry experts is one innovative aspect of the Jump Start model. Here are three others:

Students must earn an industry-based credential before graduating.

To make sure students leave high school with employable skills, they must earn an industry-recognized certification or other credential in their field of interest in order to receive a Jump Start Career Diploma. For example, students in the welding pathway would earn a welding credential from the American Welding Society, while students in an information technology pathway might earn a cyber-security credential.

All Louisiana high school students will be able to earn an industry-based credential—but a credential will be required for students working toward a career diploma. “This gives every student in the state a pathway to the middle class, while making school work far more relevant,” Lefkowith says.

Louisiana’s school accountability system gives equal weight to academic and CTE achievement.

“We want all students to have a Jump Start experience, whether they are earning an academic or a career diploma,” Lefkowith says. “Even students who go to one of the top universities in the United States are going to have to find employment some day—and so we want kids who are going to a four-year university to take our career readiness courses and work at an internship.”

Traditionally, school leaders have steered high-achieving students away from CTE experiences. Often, this is because their participation in a career-based course has less perceived value than their participation in an advanced academic course for state accountability purposes.

Louisiana has changed its school report card system so that’s no longer the case. Now, schools will receive the same credit for students who earn a high-value industry-based credential as they do for students who earn a “3” or above on an AP exam. In effect, Louisiana schools will be rewarded for preparing students for both college and careers.

Every Louisiana high school student is encouraged to have structured interactions with career professionals.

A key aspect of career education involves exposing students to job possibilities and the skills these require. “Without an awareness of the opportunities that are available, students aren’t going to plug into the training they need,” says Ashley Aleman, education liaison for the economic development organization Greater New Orleans Inc.

To help with this awareness, Aleman organizes what she calls “Future-Building Fridays.” These are field trips in which she takes students into the workplace for hands-on exposure to various careers.

These site visits, while extremely useful, require time and money to organize. They’re also hard to scale so that all students can participate. “Unfortunately, I’m just a team of one,” she says. What’s more, students who live in rural areas of the state don’t have many local industry options to explore.

To solve this problem, Louisiana has partnered with Nepris, a Texas-based company that connects students with workplace professionals through online video conferences. “One industry professional can impact a hundred students at one time, or maybe have a deeper conversation with a handful of students,” Aleman says.

According to Lefkowith, connecting students with industry professionals not only supplies them with role models they can learn from; it also lets them practice how to interact with adults, so once they graduate they have the confidence they need to succeed. “It levels the playing field,” he says. “We’ve created structured experiences where every high school student in Louisiana can engage with industry experts in any sector they’re interested in exploring.”

The Jump Start program doesn’t become mandatory statewide until the 2017-18 school year, but already many Louisiana parishes are offering the program to their students.

“The feedback that we’re getting is extremely positive,” Lefkowith concludes. “We’re very optimistic about the transformative impact this will have on kids.”

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