09/16/2013 10:13 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Transforming High Schools: Linking Academics and Real Life

My first job out of college was as a high school English teacher in San Francisco. As a result, every fall brings with it hope and excitement, a combination of anticipation and aspiration. Sadly, today, for far too many high schools students in my state of California, such hope is not to be found. Too many of our young people's dreams go unrealized, and that has enormous consequences.

Put simply, our education system is not working for many students. Across California, nearly a quarter of students don't graduate from high school on time or at all. Graduation rates for Latinos and African Americans are even lower. And barely a third of the state's students who do graduate high school actually complete all of the courses needed for admission to a University of California or Cal State school. We're failing our students by not giving them the education they need.

The implications are clear: the economy suffers when our workers are not prepared. Unemployment among these youth is at a level not seen since the 1950s. Tens of billions of dollars are lost in wages and productivity as a result of dropouts, and our state's workers are not prepared for the jobs we do have and need filled.

None of this is a surprise. We've lived with these facts for a while now, and if we have learned one lesson from the many education reform efforts to date, it is that we should not believe there is one, single solution to fix these daunting problems.

But there are promising approaches being pursued here in California that keep hope and excitement alive for the state's students. The James Irvine Foundation has invested more than $100 million in Linked Learning, a promising approach that we believe is the best chance at giving all youth in our state the best opportunity for their future. This approach not only engages students in learning, but also mobilizes a broad community of educators, policymakers, and business leaders in partnership toward this success. And this fall, because of a statewide expansion project, Linked Learning will begin to spread to dozens of school districts across California.

Linked Learning connects, or links, rigorous academics with experience in real workplaces. Think about the work experience a few fortunate students get through internships today. Now combine that with mentoring, job shadowing, and other apprenticeships. Only now imagine that such workplace experience and guidance is paired thematically with challenging courses and studies in school that directly relate to that work experience. The result: school becomes more relevant to a student's life, and students become more engaged and motivated.

During the past few years, Linked Learning has emerged as one way to prepare students for both college and career. It offers students rigorous college preparatory classes. It exposes them to career pathways they might never have imagined, pathways that match employment opportunities in the state, such as engineering, healthcare, or law. And perhaps most importantly, early indications are that Linked Learning works.

Attendance rates are up. Students in these Linked Learning pathways are completing more of the course requirements for admission to a four-year public university in California, and they have higher high school graduation rates -- 95 percent of twelfth graders in these programs graduated compared to 85 percent of twelfth graders statewide. It helps all students, including the traditionally disadvantaged.

The results have been so promising that the California Department of Education has established the Linked Learning Pilot Program to grow this approach from nine pilot school districts to now 63 school districts and county offices of education reaching thousands more students.

While all of this is promising, we know that ultimate success depends on the active engagement of many communities. Linked Learning has helped to bring students, teachers, principals, parents, researchers and policymakers together; it has mobilized community organizations and businesses in ways that ensure sustained reform that will persist. As with any successful reform effort, we all need to play a part.

It's the beginning of another school year, a time of hope, renewal and fresh starts. Let's keep this spirit of anticipation and aspiration alive by offering a rigorous and relevant educational experience, especially for those whose prospects are limited. We all have a stake in this, our future depends on it, and our young people deserve nothing less.