“The Academy model here at Cane Ridge High School has definitely had a positive impact on my education. It has opened so many doors and allowed me to expand my horizons on the career I wish to pursue…It has mentally and physically prepared me for life after high school.

– Bailee D., student, Academy of Health Management at Cane Ridge High School in Nashville, Academies of Nashville Blog

Business PartnershipsA recent national report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) found that large numbers of students are graduating from high school without the literacy, numeracy, and technology skills needed for success in the workforce. This report was the topic of the SCORE Institute on Overcoming the Skills Gap in Tennessee, held on August 21. During the SCORE Institute, Tennessee educators, policymakers, and business leaders discussed the importance of forging connections between schools and businesses so that students are truly prepared for both college and career. School-business partnerships can take a variety of forms, including career academies, internship programs, apprenticeships, or other work-based learning opportunities. In some cases, they include dual enrollment at a community or technical college and may even allow students to graduate with an associate’s degree or industry credential. As the quote above indicates, some Tennessee students are already benefiting from such opportunities. However, there is still much work to do to expand these opportunities to more students.
Below are three examples of how schools can partner with businesses to prepare students for the workforce.

The Academies of Nashville

The Academies of Nashville are small learning communities within each of Nashville’s zoned public high schools. Each learning community follows a career-themed curriculum, and students participate in industry related field trips, job shadowing, and internships with local businesses. The Academies also offer opportunities for industry certification or dual enrollment in local postsecondary institutions.

Tipton County Schools, Dyersburg State Community College, and Unilever

Through a partnership with Unilever and Dyersburg State Community College, high school students in Tipton County, Tennessee have the opportunity to take a special Certified Production Technician course and participate in internships at the local Unilever ice cream plant. The program offers a select group of students a direct pipeline to job opportunities with Unilever after graduation. Students qualify for the program based on their scores on the National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) exam.

12 for Life

Southwire, a leading manufacturer of wire and cable, partners with schools in Carrollton, Georgia, and Florence, Alabama, to place at-risk high school students in part-time manufacturing jobs. Participants in the 12 for Life program attend school for part of the day and spend the rest of the day working in a Southwire plant built specifically for student workers. To be eligible for the program, students must have been identified by a graduation coach, counselor, or administrator as needing additional support to complete high school.

Tennessee has already taken several important steps to expand student access to high-quality career exploration and work-based learning experiences. In October 2014, the State Board of Education adopted a Work-Based Learning Framework outlining expectations for work-based learning experiences. The State Board subsequently approved standards for two new courses: a career exploration course for grades 8 and 9 and a career practicum for grades 11 and 12. The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) has produced a Work-Based Learning Policy Guide and separate Implementation Guide, along with a Work-Based Learning Toolbox with numerous supplementary materials. The TDOE is also offering certification training and organizing regional professional learning communities for work-based learning coordinators.

To build upon the work that Tennessee is already doing in the area of work-based learning, state policymakers should consider the following steps:

Conduct rigorous evaluations of the outcomes of school-business partnerships and work-based learning programs in Tennessee. To ensure that work-based experiences are meeting the needs of students, it is important to track both short- and long-term outcomes of programs. Short-term outcomes could include student grades or surveys of student satisfaction, while long-term outcomes should include graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment, and employment outcomes.

Learn from effective school-business partnership programs in other states. Educators and policymakers can contact leaders of programs in other states that have successfully connected students to the workplace. Interactions with these leaders could range from asking for advice to inviting a program to expand its operations to Tennessee.

Explore options for exposing students to work environments beginning in middle school. Research indicates that middle school is a time when many students become disengaged from school. For these students, high school may be too late to begin drawing connections between school and the workplace. Providing career-exploration experiences for middle school students can help them see the relevance of what they are learning so that they will remain engaged and focused on their future. It can also connect them with caring adults beyond their school who can serve as mentors and industry connections. Spark, a nonprofit organization that places underserved 7th and 8th graders into workplace-based apprenticeships, is one example of a program that has succeeded at connecting middle school students to the workplace.

Designing and implementing appropriate work-based experiences for middle and high school students can be challenging, but the growth and interest in youth apprenticeship programs shows that the barriers are not insurmountable. Going forward, Tennessee should work to expand opportunities for students to participate in programs like the ones described here so that all students graduate from high school ready for college and a career.

In the coming weeks, watch for a series of SCORE Sheet posts about schools and businesses across Tennessee that are working together to connect students to the workplace.