Partnering credentialing opportunities alongside pre-existing regional initiatives is a great way to get buy-in and create momentum.
By David McCool
When Polk County schools began focusing on career and technical education in the spring of 2023, one of their goals was to help students succeed in the workplace by offering the opportunity to develop soft skills and earn micro-credentials to communicate with potential employers. The district collaborated with Education Design Lab, Muzzy Lane, Polk Vision, the Central Florida Development Council, and Southern New Hampshire University to make this dream a reality.
How The Credentialing Initiative Got Started
To make sure students were learning locally relevant skills, the partners convened 32 Polk County employers. Through this convening, the group sought to create awareness about the value of soft skills and micro-credentials and to ask the employers what skills mattered most for their entry-level jobs. One set of these employers/businesses was engaged through participation in the Polk County School District Career Academy Advisory Board composed of employers, business support agencies (chambers and economic development), the public sector, etc. Additionally, the initiative engaged the county-wide Polk Vision operating board composed of community leaders and agencies. Based on input from these groups, the project focused on three skills: Critical Thinking, Oral Communication, and Initiative.
Next, they needed to spread the word. Information was shared at the school level via the District Workforce Education Department. Teachers were provided with face-to-face training in the district and the Career Academy/Workforce Education staff assisted in the identification, administration, communication, and deployment of the digital micro-credentials. The county-wide agencies supported the storytelling locally and provided an audience for the work. Teachers provided communication to students and families. To increase participation, $50K in scholarships was also made available to learners who earned the micro-credentials and the Polk Education Partnership assisted in communication to guidance counselors and countywide sources to enhance knowledge of this exciting opportunity.
So far the program has served 12- to 15-hour courses in the selected skills to 450 11th and 12th-grade students. The program aimed to make students both college- and workforce-ready, and even offered a financial incentive: for every credential they completed, students earned a $1,000 scholarship they could use at the college or university of their choice. These credentials and the learning process were facilitated as a part of the career academy (technical skill development) curriculum supervised by a credentialed teacher. The content was delivered via a system called vsbl, offered by Education Design Lab, which embeds the Muzzy Lane assessments as part of the learning and evaluation process.
While attendance rates were a significant challenge during the first year of this program (COVID), they saw marked improvement during the second year of implementation. One of the major challenges associated with micro-credentials is earning employers’ confidence that students have mastered the skills for which they’ve earned credentials. To build that trust, the partners were transparent with their community partners about the competency-based framework that the courses were built on.
At the end of the project, the state of Florida began requiring navigation of the technology tools and required documentation for moving forward. This last feature remains a hurdle to broader dissemination beyond the businesses that participated in this process.
Despite the challenges, this initiative has already begun to pay off. The Board of County Commissioners of Polk County recently told the district that it would guarantee a job interview to any resident who has graduated from high school and completed any of the micro-credential courses. In its first few years, this collaboration has not only taught students valuable skills but has also provided employers with new recruitment opportunities and a linkage to a talent pipeline that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
David McCool is president and CEO of Muzzy Lane, a company that recently released its SkillBuild Critical Thinking Microcredential Course. Dave was previously involved in the founding of 2 successful startups. He graduated from MIT with a BSEE in 1987. He can be reached at [email protected] or LinkedIn.