NOLA public charter schools expanding college and career pathways for thousands of students

By Amanda McElfresh,

This story is brought to you by Education Reform Now

More than ever, schools and organizations in New Orleans are forging stronger connections between students and long-term job opportunities.

The shift has occurred in recent years, beginning after Hurricane Katrina and only growing more robust since then. New Orleans public schools have undergone major changes and are now all part of a decentralized, all-public charter school system.

In this unique educational environment, organizations such as Collegiate Academies, the citywide YouthForce NOLA collaborative and others have had the flexibility to innovate, develop partnerships and expand pathways to careers in ways that most other school districts do not have the flexibility to do.

The result is more 2020 New Orleans high school graduates with industry-based credentials, paid work experience and refined real-world skills to help them navigate post-secondary education and the professional world.

Cate Swinburn, president and co-founder of YouthForce NOLA, said that about five years ago, educators began to notice that New Orleans students were making academic gains in the form of higher ACT scores, graduation rates and college-going rates.

But at the same time, data showed New Orleans had a disproportionate number of people ages 16-24 who were not working and not in school. There also were large numbers of students dropping out of college because of the high cost of secondary education, lack of academic and mental health supports and their college choice or major not being a good fit for them.

“We were faced with a real disconnect,” Swinburn said. “There were incredibly talented young people living in New Orleans, which had thousands of great-paying, advancement-potential jobs, and the young people would likely never be able to cross that bridge and land one of those great jobs. The YouthForce NOLA plan was created to build the bridges and systems so New Orleans graduates can be the most sought-after talent for high-wage, high-growth career pathways.”

Meanwhile, around the same time, Collegiate Academies realized they needed to adapt to meet their students’ needs. While they have maintained their college focus, they have continually developed responsive programming to support the needs of all of their students: from trauma-informed practices to enhanced co-curriculars, from English Language Learning supports to honors extension coursework, from AP classes to math and reading interventions.

Collegiate engaged alumni to learn from their experiences to enhance their coursework to develop classes around social justice, and created the college success class, which is focused on financial literacy, mental health, nutrition and advocating for academic support.

“Students are building academic skills while getting to explore different opportunities that speak to their passion and purpose,” said Lauren Katz, Collegiate Academies’ senior director of college success. “We also offer extensive holistic support, mental health services and full health clinics. All of that was being really responsive to the students in front of us and seeing what the needs were.”

Five years after its inception, Swinburn said the YouthForce NOLA collaborative is on track to meet or exceed all of its goals for the class of 2020. Those goals include:

  • At least 20 percent of New Orleans’ 2020 graduates will have an industry-based credential in addition to a high school diploma
  • At least 10 percent of the 2020 class will graduate with meaningful, paid work experience, plus a diploma
  • An increasing number of high school graduates will have developed essential or soft skills to navigate post-secondary education or the work world

About 70 percent of Collegiate Academies’ students are pursuing traditional college pathways, Katz said. The rest are on pathways to obtain industry credentials, associate degrees or other certifications.

“All of our schools are committed to preparing students for college success, and at the same time, we have a percentage of the student body that is not interested in college or going right away,” Katz said. “We have students who are passionate about other pathways, and that is just as exciting. We still want to make sure they are making decisions from a place of power, choice, and opportunity, rather than necessity.”

To maximize student choice and resilience, Swinburn said YouthForce focuses on skill clusters and teaching students the abilities they can transfer across different industries. Those clusters are skilled crafts, health sciences, digital media and business services.

By learning skills and building social capital in these clusters, New Orleans students can be prepared for, and connected to, high-wage jobs in numerous sectors, including construction, engineering, health care, graphic design, information technology, financial services and more.

Currently, YouthForce NOLA is establishing its goals for 2025, but Swinburn said some key themes for the next five years will be deepening efforts toward graduate readiness, building connectivity for alumni all the way to the point of first hire, and expanding the YouthForce coalition of partners working in services of its shared vision.

“We know we are on the right track,” Swinburn said. “Young people are making informed choices. They are more engaged in school and more prepared for work and post-secondary education. The next phase is to leverage the vast YouthForce NOLA network to be a thriving career connection network on behalf of New Orleans youth.”

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