Denver Public Schools CareerConnect: Rethinking the Education to Employment Pathway

Summer break is usually a time to unwind, recover, and relax. Not for the 250 students taking part in Denver Public Schools new CareerLaunch Internship Program. For them, this summer has been a chance to explore a new field, gain crucial experience in the workplace, and earn some money. With these students now back in school, they will have valuable new experiences in the world of work and a new perspective about what to do after high school.

DPS students Jake VanSickle and Carlos Yosten at Woolpert's office.
DPS students Jake VanSickle and Carlos Yosten at Woolpert’s office. Photo source: Denver Public Schools

Take Carlos Yosten and Jake VanSickle, incoming seniors at East High School. This summer, they interned at Woolpert, located in the Denver Tech Center, building topographic maps using state-of-the-art Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) technology. When they go back to school, not only will they know whether they want to pursue a career in GIS, they’ll also have gained experience working side-by-side with professionals that they can apply to any career they pursue.

For decades, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has been offering career exploration, mentoring, and job shadow opportunities through CareerConnect. Three years ago, with help from a Department of Labor grant, CareerConnect kicked it up a notch with an ambitious growth plan to offer more students new opportunities in the region’s five fastest growing industries: finance, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, IT, and engineering.

With a focus on providing relevant, project-based courses and hands-on workplace experiences, CareerConnect has set itself a lofty goal: to fundamentally transform the high school learning experience, post-secondary opportunities, higher education degree structures, and workforce development.

Three years in, they are well on their way. Last year, 5,329 students participated in 75 programs across 24 high schools. More than a 1,000 students had the opportunity to learn in the workplace through innovative new programs like CareerLaunch. Just as impressive, CareerConnect is reaching traditionally underserved populations: 80 percent of students in STEM programs are students of color.

CareerConnect students are not only better prepared to make a good decision about what to do after high school, they are also thriving in the classroom: historically, CareerConnect students are 30 percent more likely to graduate than their peers.

A CTE Program for Every Student

Depending on student interest, a DPS student may engage with CareerConnect in several different ways. From resume workshops and job shadows to industry credentials and employment, CareerConnect offers a range of services to introduce and prepare students for the workplace.

An incoming freshman at one of the nine DPS campuses where CareerConnect is active might first sign up for a CareerX Industry Exploration Program in a field she finds interesting. She’ll have the opportunity to participate in a job shadow, talk to industry professionals, and find out what classes to take in high school. She’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether this is a career she is (or just as importantly, is not) interested in pursuing.

As sophomores, students can deepen their knowledge with STEM courses taught by professionals in the field. Currently, 140 professionals draw on years of experience to teach CareerConnect courses. Even more, professionals participate in one-on-one mentoring offered through the CareerCoach Program. Only halfway through high school, these DPS students are well ahead of their peers in knowing what type of work different jobs entail and what it takes to flourish in the career of their choice.

Students have the opportunity to intern at local businesses starting the summer before their junior year. Like Carlos and Jake, students in CareerLaunch are paired with local businesses in one of the five industries to do productive work and get paid for it.

“At Woolpert, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed having our DPS interns with us for the summer,” Geospatial and Technology Discipline Director Kirk McClurkin said. “They have helped our organization in numerous ways, and I believe they have learned valuable, real-world lessons from their time here with us. These young entrepreneurs are incredibly savvy with technology and are anxious to share their thoughts and knowledge.”

CareerLaunch is just as much of an opportunity for businesses as for students. For industry leaders concerned about a coming labor shortage, like McClurkin, hosting high school interns is essential for building out the talent pipeline and boosting recruitment.

“Hosting CareerLaunch interns also provides us with youthful and fresh organizational and technical perspectives that allow our management team to rethink processes and concepts,” McClurkin added, “Working side-by-side with the interns is invaluable when evaluating our recruitment and onboarding methods.”

Firms as diverse as Intertech Plastics, Firstbank, Pinnacol Assurance, Bath and Granite, and 79 others have realized as much. As McClurkin put it, “It’s incredible that students and organizations in the Denver area can benefit mutually from this experience, and I encourage other businesses to engage with the program.”

McClurkin couldn’t be more correct. Our member Bath and Granite also took on a CareerLaunch Intern this summer and noted the benefits experienced by its employees. “Bath & Granite utilized a DPS CareerLaunch intern on our kitchen countertop manufacturing team. The internship allowed our more veteran team members to practice their leadership skills,” said CEO Sasha Shtern.

New Programs in the Works

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CareerConnect isn’t done yet. Along with rolling out existing programing to more students and new campuses, two exciting new programs are in the works.

CareerCollaborate brings industry consulting into the classroom to give a whole class of students the opportunity to work with industry partners to solve real world problems. Piloted at John F Kennedy High School this past school year, students learned principles of energy efficiency and problem solving from the engineers at McKinstry in Golden.

Breaking into small teams, they designed solutions for how to improve a congested and dangerous intersection outside the school. The winning pitch involved a new, lighted crosswalk sign powered by hydropower from a nearby stream. From conception to design to permitting, students have pushed this project nearly to completion and are awaiting final city approval to see their project realized.

For students ready to make the leap into a career in advanced manufacturing, IT, or banking/finance, CareerResidency is a revelation. Drawing on the insights from the BEL Commission’s fact finding trip to Switzerland, CareerResidency will give students the opportunity to train for a career in high school, earn college credit and industry credentials, and land a job upon graduation.

Starting the 2017-18 school year, high school seniors who have participated in a CareerLaunch internship will spend two days a week taking targeted classes directly relevant to their chosen field. Three days a week, they will learn in the workplace and get paid for doing productive work.

By the end of 12th grade, they will earn industry credentials, college credit, and a high school diploma. If they choose, they can continue in the program for a 13th year as they work towards their Associate’s Degree while earning income from their employer.

Leading the Way

Clearly, Denver Public Schools CareerConnect is leading the way in rethinking the pathway from education to employment. What’s more, the program is an exemplar for what effective business engagement in our schools looks like. DPS students have the opportunity to explore possible careers as freshman, get advice from professionals in fast-growing fields as sophomores, gain valuable experience in the workplace as juniors and earn industry credentials as seniors that will land them a job even before graduation.

Of course, challenges lie ahead. While CareerConnect has found eager partners in industry and benefited from a generous Department of Labor grant, finding sustainable funding remains a challenge. As CareerConnect expands to new campuses and launches the CareerResidency program, funding needs will continue to grow.

Yet, at time when industry is well aware of potential labor shortage and the need to grow our workforce here in Colorado, CareerConnect stands as a bold challenge to the status quo. Modeled on the best practices seen in Switzerland, tailored to industry needs in the region, and supported by the local business community, CareerConnect is increasing opportunity for students, expanding the talent pipeline for industry, and leading the way for the rest of the state.

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