Friday, May 29, 2020

How COVID-19 Is Forcing Innovation in High School-Industry Partnerships

Everything about education changed in the spring of 2020. School partnerships with industry were no different. Schools had to rethink internships, job shadows, and mentorships. But these disruptions have also forced new thinking that will have long-term consequences for how schools partner with industry to prepare students post-graduation. 

Some schools and districts (see inset below) have pivoted quickly in response to the pandemic, replacing job shadowing with virtual mentor networks and traditional internships with industry projects. Some solutions they’ve devised may give more students access to work-based learning even after they return to their classrooms.

Profiled Schools and Districts

Cañon City School District (CO)

Common Ground High School (CT)

Township High School District 214 (IL)

District C (NC)

Escondido Union High School District (CA)

Virtual Internships, Career Fairs, and Mentorships 

In Cañon City, Colorado, a small town about an hour’s drive southwest of Colorado Springs, the school district could salvage only about half of the internships they had planned. Work-based learning in the service industries and health sciences were particularly hard hit. But the internships that continued offered students new learning opportunities. Instead of doing desk work, a high school senior wrote a blog for the town’s local history museum about her experience during the pandemic, which the museum will add to its archives. 

Some schools plan to make virtual mentorships and career fairs part of regular school operations after trying them out this spring. In April, the charter school Common Ground in New Haven, Connecticut, started hosting online, hour-long conversations with industry partners. The school plans to continue the format in the fall because it is a better fit for partner work schedules. Students showed enthusiasm for the format too. Said Joel Tolman, “Our students tend to be pretty conservative in their career exploration, but right now students are more interested in showing up and trying something new.” Illinois’ District 214 is experimenting with virtual mentorships that pair students directly with working and retired individuals across the country, which will expand the pool of careers and mentors that students can learn from.

Industry Projects

Some districts are setting traditional internships aside. They are working with industry to create projects designed to solve real business problems, which students can work on without going into the workplace. 

The North Carolina nonprofit District C matches school districts with business partners to work on three- to nine-week projects focused on a problem the partner has identified. Teacher coaches at the school site create learning expectations for students, while the business partner gives students interim feedback and responds to their proposed solution. The model translated well to remote learning: in Wake County Public Schools, 31 of 32 students who had planned District C internships completed their projects. Students at one school helped a youth sports clothing manufacturer develop a recruitment and retention strategy for its seasonal workforce—adjusted for disruptions due to COVID-19. Even districts that have never implemented industry projects are interested in trying them. Social distancing, which will likely continue into the fall, will make most workplace internships impossible. District 214 is using relationships they have built through their internship program to develop industry projects in lieu of summer or fall internships.  

Virtual industry projects offer many of the benefits of internships—career exposure, the application of abstract concepts, and soft skill development—without the problems of navigating school schedules and workplace regulations. And they give students a taste of the real-world issues that they will encounter once they enter the workforce. 

Flexible Partnerships

Students face an uncertain economy and a changing world of work, so exploring potential careers and developing job experiences is more critical than ever. 

Alec Barron works in curriculum and instruction at Escondido Union High School District in California, where high schools like Del Lago Academy offer career pathways in the local biotech industry. “Companies have shifted, jobs have changed, projects are different. It is reasonable that there will be new entry-level opportunities for young people,” said Barron.  But to prepare students for these new opportunities, education systems must be responsive to sudden disruptions and the potential for lasting change—in almost every industry. This means forming closer and more flexible relationships with industry partners, with schools taking the lead to listen to industry and problem-solve with them. 

Virtual mentorships and job fairs offer flexibility for students and industry. An industry partner that can’t afford paid release time for student mentoring could create a video about one employee’s work day that is shared with thousands of students. Industry projects and virtual internships put teens into work scenarios that many adults are experiencing right now. This gives students valuable skills and exposure, but it also helps industry fill gaps as roles change and new competencies are needed.

For students in high school and beyond, education and employment will look radically different in the coming school year, and the year after. Innovations being tested now offer early lessons for how districts, higher education institutions, and industry can pivot.

Gretchen Morgan is a Policy Fellow at the Center for Innovation in Education. She was formerly president of CareerWise Colorado and Associate Commissioner of Innovation at the Colorado Department of Education.

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