Students Don’t Want to Wait for the Real World
By Julia Burns and Amber Reagan, Co-Founders of Pathways High
“I view high school as a holding period where we wait for our real lives to begin.” These words and variations of them were spoken by several high school seniors interviewed for the XQ Super School project, a national initiative led by Laurene Powell Jobs, Emerson Collective, and the XQ Institute to re-imagine public high schools. This sentiment is also echoed by the college students who enter The Commons, a 9-week entrepreneurship accelerator in Milwaukee, Wis. “The students we work with want to do meaningful work in a real world setting that makes a positive economic impact on their community. They want to provide value and be valued,” said Joe Poeschl, The Commons program director.
Is public education failing future generations? The emphasis on standardized test scores and intense competition to enter four-year colleges has crowded out opportunities to explore career options, establish meaningful relationships with mentors, pursue rigorous projects that promote learning from failure, and develop portfolios of authentic, original work. According to Todd Rose in The End of Average, we have created generations of students who “seek to be the same, only better.” This singular focus comes at a high price to students and our society.
How can we value multiple pathways to success? How can we emphasize real world connections for young people and ensure that future generations have both the career and life skills they need to thrive in the 21st century? How can we better engage students? Schools and programs across the country are developing bold strategies to address these questions as part of the XQ Super School project. Partnerships are forming to share best practices and expedite the progression of these education ventures.
At a recent panel discussion in Milwaukee, Amy Doyle, Vice President, Strategic Client Solutions at ManpowerGroup commented that “apprenticeships are alive and well in other parts of the world, but not as much in the U.S.” Throughout history, apprenticeships, internships and mentoring have been a vital part of young people’s education. Early examples include the medieval guild system, John Dewey’s original model established at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School in 1896 and the architectural studio model utilized in the Bauhaus School in the early 1900s.
These models often start with a prompt or problem to solve and incorporate hands-on project work, guidance from or critiques by a “master” or expert, peers and the greater community. Although many of the skills required to thrive in the 21st century have changed from those needed in the 19th and 20th centuries, successful methods for acquiring valued skills have not. We can and should learn from other successful models. According to Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase in Building School 2.0, “Modern schools are built on the shoulders of giants.” Leveraging and extending the successful models of previous generations is the hallmark of many innovative schools and programs today.
In Milwaukee, The Commons is producing strong evidence to support their entrepreneurship apprentice model. The Commons is a collaboration of 23 post-secondary institutions and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin providing high-potential college students training, experience and connections to over 130 mentors through the exercise of entrepreneurship. The Commons teaches the skills necessary for 21st century careers -- collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.
College students at the participating 23 partner institutions enter The Commons application process through referrals or self-nomination. The criteria for acceptance into the program is not grades, but instead assessment of their teamwork skills. According to Michael Hostad, Executive Director of Innovation in Milwaukee (MiKE), “a student’s ability to work collaboratively is the single biggest predictor of success in our program. It’s far more important than GPA.”
These skills resonate with ManpowerGroup’s Doyle who assists her clients with workforce planning. “As our clients’ business environments and needs are changing rapidly, we advise them to look for job candidates who possess a ‘teachable fit.’ This means the candidates have the critical soft skills, including problem solving, collaboration, change and indirect management and communication skills to excel in continuously changing environments.”
Chad Bauman, Managing Director at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, finds that many new college graduates he has hired are not comfortable working in environments where problems are complex and the manager doesn’t have all the answers. “Many young people have been conditioned and rewarded in high school and college for providing the ‘right’ answer rather than wrestling with problems that don’t have clear right and wrong answers. Having the opportunity to practice the skill of problem solving, failing early and learning from failure is essential for success in any industry,“ remarks Bauman.
Over 285 students have participated in The Commons program since Fall 2014. Many of these students have landed jobs and internships or are running growing companies and all students have produced tangible pieces of work for their portfolios. The Commons has already become an active driver of economic development. Most importantly, what are the students saying? According to The Commons exit surveys, 90% of students say they feel more connected to the community, and 81% say they are likely to stay in Milwaukee. As one student remarked, “The Commons was not just a catalyst for landing my first job out of college, but a catalyst for developing my true career path.”
Most high school students today believe that career path development shouldn’t have to wait until college. Gaining exposure to career opportunities and developing valuable soft skills can and should start in high school. Pathways High, a proposed charter school in Milwaukee, WI, that became an XQ Super School semifinalist, seeks to provide these opportunities to students through a partnership with The Commons. “From the beginning our vision for The Commons was to make it a regional student hub that is active during the day, night and weekends with student entrepreneurs and creators of all types, educators and mentors,” says Joe Poeschl. Poeschl expects to engage Pathways High students during the day from 8:00am - 6:00pm while working with college students in the evenings and weekends.
Collaboration with the business and postsecondary academic community and exposure to meaningful, real world work will be cornerstones of the Pathways High experience. The school will work with several colleges in Milwaukee to offer dual enrollment options for students. Pathways High students will also regularly connect with the community both inside and outside the classroom. Business partner liaisons will collaborate with teachers and students to create projects based on real world problems. Also, multiple one-week intersessions will take place at business partner locations throughout the school year enabling students to gain exposure to careers and give back to the community through service projects.
Pathways High will value multiple paths to success and will provide students with a 21st century experience. One thing’s for sure there will be no more waiting for real life to begin for students at The Commons or Pathways High.
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