Personalized High School Pathways

Key Points

  • Gem Prep launched personalized grade 10-14 student-led pathways that lead to high-wage careers. 

  • The Community Connections initiative starts with a career pathway course and encourages students to choose a career direction and request funding to take the first steps toward that career.

Big high schools often create career academies to offer coherent applied pathways in high-demand career fields. Many use curriculum sequences like PLTW to ensure consistent career-aligned learning experiences.

To build learner ownership and accommodate diverse interests, a growing number of schools offer personalized pathways–a customized course of study including immersive experiences. They typically have a goal of career success and are increasingly open to a range of postsecondary learning.

For more than 25 years, schools in the Big Picture network have been educating “one student at a time.” A strong advisory system lays the groundwork for internships (usually two days a week each year of high school) based on learner interest. At San Diego Met, these internships are combined with college courses to create a personalized early college experience.  

Pathways are unique at High School of Commerce, Springfield Public Schools. Students design college and career courses of study based on interests. There are three college options, six applied workforce certificate programs, and paid internships in a range of industries.

Personalized pathways are an option in Madison Wisconsin high schools. Each pathway connects integrated curriculum and experiential learning opportunities and leads to a postsecondary plan that leads to a degree and/or industry-recognized credential.

To build learner ownership and accommodate diverse interests, a growing number of schools offer personalized pathways–a customized course of study including immersive experiences.

Tom Vander Ark

The national CAPS Network includes part-time programs that enable juniors and seniors in more than 140 school districts to chart their own paths in professions-based learning. A wide range of courses set the stage for student-directed projects, internships, and entrepreneurial experiences.

VLACS, the statewide online school in New Hampshire, allows students to customize their learning according to their interests, talents, or passions in flexible learning journeys including courses, projects, experiences, teams, internships and college-level courses. Students can chart their own journeys in a unique learning playlist.

Personal Pathways in Idaho

Gem Prep launched personalized grade 10-14 student-led pathways that lead to high wage careers. The Community Connections initiative, sponsored by the Charter School Growth Fund, starts with a career pathway course and encourages students to choose a career direction and request funding to take the first steps toward that career. They find mentors, receive support from school based staff, and receive the resources to begin down that path. Funding could be a paid internship, it could cover the cost of tools, or an pay for a certificate program

“What makes it unique is that no one is telling them what their choices are, and the student takes 100% ownership of getting the training and support they need to get and keep moving down their path,” said Gem founder Jason Bransford. One student is getting his private pilot’s license, another is getting his locksmith certification, and yet another is doing a graphic design internship this summer.

Bransford found limitations to funneling kids into career pathways. “Students are more likely to finish and endure if they have a why at the end,” said Bransford. He acknowledged they are still learning a lot about how to balance the support with the ownership students need to take.

Gem Prep students apply to be part of Community Connections. They chose a career that will start at over $50,000 and take steps on that path including building a committee of mentors. The key is for students to “Get and maintain ownership of path,” said Bransford.

Businesses are beginning to offer attractive incentives to students, one even offers full tuition payment if the student will start at their company and stay through college.

Bransford sees the personalized pathways of the Community Connections initiative as a bridge from a college prep focus to postsecondary and career success.

The New Pathways (#NewPathways) campaign will serve as a road map to the new architecture for American schools, where every learner, regardless of zip code, is on a pathway to productive and sustainable citizenship, high wage employment, economic mobility, and a purpose-driven life. It will also explore and guide leaders on the big education advances of this decade–how access is expanded and personalized, and how new capabilities are captured and communicated. When well implemented, these advances will unlock opportunities for all and narrow the equity gap. You can engage with this ongoing campaign using #NewPathways or submit an idea to Editor using the writing submission form.

Tom - Speaking Engagements

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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