hands-on learning

With powerful backers, new Colorado apprenticeship program seeks to build ‘middle class of tomorrow’

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
Denver student Quang Nguyen works at an internship this past summer.

A youth apprenticeship program set to launch next fall aims to connect 250 Colorado high school students with paid job training in its first year, providing students with an immediate path to middle-income jobs and helping businesses cultivate the skilled workers they need.

Called CareerWise Colorado, the program is being launched with the help of $5.5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In addition, JPMorgan Chase is contributing $4 million to Denver Public Schools to expand its current career exploration program. DPS is one of four school districts that has pledged to take part in the new CareerWise Colorado initiative.

Under the apprenticeship program, participating 11th- and 12th-graders will spend up to half of their time working and the other half in class earning a diploma and credit toward a two-year college degree. They will spend an additional year post-graduation getting more work experience and earning more college credits.

“We are in the process of building a real pipeline of talent that goes from the school, the campus directly to the workplace,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at a kickoff event Wednesday morning at the downtown highrise headquarters of DaVita Healthcare Partners.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was among the dignitaries at the event. He called the state a nationwide leader in youth apprenticeship, which he joked is “the other college, except without the debt.”

“What you’re doing through these investments is not only building the workforce of tomorrow,” he said. “You’re building the middle class of tomorrow.”

CareerWise Colorado came together after business leaders — led by Denver-based Intertech Plastics founder Noel Ginsburg — education leaders and state government officials, including Hickenlooper, visited Switzerland in 2015 and early 2016 to study that country’s popular apprenticeship program, in which 70 percent of high schoolers participate.

Ginsburg said what he saw there inspired him to push for a similar program in Colorado.

“We really believe this can be transformational — not just for our students, but for our businesses, as well,” said Ginsburg, who is chairman of the CareerWise Colorado board.

Several Colorado employers have committed to working with apprentices, including DaVita, Intertech Plastics, Pinnacol Assurance and Mikron, a Swiss manufacturer with a location in Englewood. In fact, Mikron has already taken on three apprentices this year.

Selena Elekovic, a senior at Cherry Creek High School, is one of them. Addressing the crowd at Wednesday’s event, she said the experience has helped solidify her desire to become an engineer.

“They showed us how concepts I learned about in class come to life,” Elekovic said.

CareerWise Colorado backers hope to see 20,000 Colorado high school students participate in youth apprenticeships by 2027, a goal they admit will require more funding.

Several local organizations also have donated, including the Daniels Fund, the Mile High United Way and the Walton Family Foundation. The state of Colorado has also contributed. (The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

CareerWise Colorado would also like more school districts to get involved. Thus far, Denver, Cherry Creek, Jeffco and Mesa County Valley School District 51 have pledged to take part.

Meanwhile, Denver Public Schools plans to use its $4 million grant to expand its existing CareerConnect program from 6,000 students to 9,000 students over the next three years.

Students can start taking foundational classes in 9th grade in one of several “pathways,” including business, technology, creative arts and healthcare. They can also attend a career exploration event — for example spending half a day at a hospital, hearing from doctors, exploring the inside of an ambulance and even doing a dissection experiment.

In 10th grade, students continue taking classes and have the option of connecting with a mentor who works in the field they’re interested in. In 11th grade, they can do an internship. And starting next fall, 100 DPS students will get a chance to participate in the apprenticeship program.

Thus far, DPS’s CareerConnect program has been funded with help from a $7 million federal grant the district won in 2014. But that money will eventually run out, which is why funding to continue and expand CareerConnect is included as part of a proposed $56.6 million mill levy override the district is asking Denver voters to approve in November.

Dozens of DPS students attended today’s event dressed in matching navy blue polo shirts. Quang Nguyen, a senior at Lincoln High School, had a paid summer internship at the Colorado Department of Education, where he worked with the technology team to test the department’s data collection system for potentially devastating errors.

Nguyen, who is in the process of applying to study engineering at a Colorado university next year, said the most important thing he learned was “how to communicate with people, how to know about deadlines and how to tell people you need help.”

Juan Garcia, a Lincoln High junior, interned with the city’s technology services department, updating and replacing computers at Denver libraries. He encouraged other students who might be considering getting involved in the CareerConnect program to take the leap.

Asked what he wants to do after high school, Garcia didn’t hesitate.

“Solve all the world’s problems,” he said.

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.