03/22/2013 06:30 pm ET Updated May 22, 2013

Pathways to Employment: Graduating Students Ready for College and Career

When it comes to figuring out "what's working" to best prepare students for college and career, there are as many opinions as there are possible solutions.

My recent blog -- "Making a High School Diploma Mean Something" -- prompted numerous comments about how to best educate students to offer them paths most likely to assure success after high school.

One veteran teacher made this comment: "In my 20+ years of teaching I have seen the credo change from "Do what is in the best interests of the students" to "Do what makes the data look good." Another reader wrote that school is meant to foster the passion and learning of students by helping them find what they truly love to do; and another reader challenged corporations to offer STEM jobs to only American graduates.

I'd like to highlight one new school's approach to assure success after high school.

Let's start at the top, with the president. In his January State of the Union speech, President Obama asked, "How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs... in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and housing?"

President Obama challenged us to redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high tech economy. The president lauded a new STEM program saying, "We'll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math -- the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future."

In that spirit, the time is now to redesign how high schools educate, making them learning organizations that provide real, relevant and engaging opportunities for students to learn. Applied Technology Center High School (ATC) in Montebello, Calif., does just that -- they have designed a multi-pathway high school so that students will graduate ready to take their place in the workforce or enter a two or four-year college.

Montebello, located 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is an industrial, urban city. The city prides itself on its sense of community and strong family ties.

According to ATC Principal Patricia Lockhart, "The whole idea behind the school -- from dream to reality -- was to provide a place where high school students could prepare for life after high school and enter the workforce. There are many "mom and pop" businesses in Montebello. With strong community and family involvement, there's a tremendous sense of 'wanting to give back'."

It was 10 years in the making, but when ATC opened its doors in 2011 to high school freshmen, it had been entirely funded through a local bond because the community saw the value of the school and supported it.

Employers indicate that graduates entering the workforce need the skills of Deeper Learning -- finely honed communication skills, the ability to work in teams and collaborate, the knowledge to think critically, the drive to be an innovative learner and the impetus to work with self-direction and initiative.

ATC takes this philosophy to heart. The school is built around the concept of pathways or career paths. "The committee in charge of overseeing the building project did extensive research into the labor market and determined which industry sectors would be hiring most over the next few years," said Lockhart. "It was from this research that the specific pathways evolved. We determined that the following four pathways would provide the most employment opportunities: engineering and construction management; culinary arts and hospitality; public services (law enforcement, fire safety and legal professions); and health services careers."

It's important to allow some exploration, so students who apply to ATC choose two pathways. However, students take classes in each pathway during the ninth grade, and at the end of freshman year, they make a commitment for the balance of their four years to follow one pathway.

Within the national New Tech Network of 100 high schools, teachers partner with local organizations to design class projects that call for students to solve real challenges, to provide student internships and to meet community needs. Most business leaders find it deeply satisfying to act as an expert for students or help launch a school project or create a small internship program.

A culture of responsibility and respect permeates the halls of ATC. And it's a culture that emulates the workplace as much as possible. "Our discipline policy mimics what would happen in the work environment," explained Lockhart. "When we need to discipline a student, we say -- "what would I say to you now if I was your boss?"

Students in the Public Service pathway at ATC participate in mock trials -- taking the roles of prosecutor, defendant and defense team. Community involvement is crucial here as well. In a recent mock trial, an assistant DA from Los Angeles participated as the judge. The jury reaches a decision as to guilt or innocence based on how the students present their case.

The ultimate goal at ATC is for students to be connected to their futures via job shadowing in their junior and senior years. "We want all students to be placed at a part-time job in their pathway in their senior year," said Lockhart. "This way, they'll get a chance to experience the real "working world" before they graduate and actually begin careers or proceed on to a two-or four-year college."

Schools such as Applied Technology Center offer one way to assure students have choices and graduate ready for college and career.