Preparing High School Students for Careers During and After the Pandemic

Posted April 24, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Two Black high school students stand near lockers, wearing masks. Their smiles are apparent, despite the face coverings.

Insights from a Pan­dem­ic: Reflec­tions from the On Track to Career Suc­cess Project is a new brief from Johns Hop­kins University’s Every­one Grad­u­ates Cen­ter. It reflects on the deploy­ment of On Track to Career Suc­cess (OTC), a new frame­work for ensur­ing all stu­dents are pre­pared for suc­cess­ful careers after grad­u­a­tion. OTCS was designed and imple­ment­ed in Albu­querque, New Mex­i­co, and New Orleans, Louisiana, with sup­port from the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. Every­one Grad­u­ates launched the pro­gram in 2020 as part of the Foundation’s Thrive by 25® efforts to sup­port young adults ages 14 through 24.

Prepar­ing High School Stu­dents for Career Success

The OTCS frame­work is an evi­dence-based mod­el designed to guide high school stu­dents as they pre­pare for future career suc­cess. The New Mex­i­co and Louisiana schools cho­sen to employ the frame­work serve Black and Indige­nous stu­dents, often in low-income com­mu­ni­ties that were hit hard­est by the pandemic.

The frame­work is built on three elements:

  1. Mile­stones. OTCS uses col­lege and career mile­stones to deter­mine if a stu­dent is on track to suc­ceed in the work­force. Each school com­mu­ni­ty is respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing its own ver­sion of these mile­stones, which focus on social-emo­tion­al devel­op­ment and aca­d­e­m­ic progress. Reach­ing these mile­stones indi­cates that a stu­dent has been pre­pared to suc­ceed in post­sec­ondary edu­ca­tion and careers.
  2. Mon­i­tor­ing stu­dent suc­cess. OTCS also close­ly fol­lows indi­ca­tors of stu­dent suc­cess in grades 912 to ensure stu­dent progress toward high school grad­u­a­tion and post­sec­ondary prepa­ra­tion. These indi­ca­tors include school atten­dance, stu­dent behav­ior and aca­d­e­m­ic performance.
  3. Con­nec­tions that lead to career suc­cess. The framework’s goal is to ensure stu­dents take part in work and edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ences that build toward a career. OTCS brings togeth­er school, com­mu­ni­ty and employ­er part­ners to con­nect stu­dents with col­lege vis­its and work-based learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Key Insights From OTCS’ Implementation

Five valu­able lessons sur­faced dur­ing the framework’s imple­men­ta­tion amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Human con­nec­tion is crit­i­cal to learn­ing. Schools found that the men­tal — and even phys­i­cal health of staff and stu­dents — dete­ri­o­rat­ed due to the learn­ing inter­rup­tions cre­at­ed by the pan­dem­ic, demon­strat­ing how impor­tant social-emo­tion­al well-being is to aca­d­e­m­ic success.
  2. Stop and lis­ten to grow equi­ty. Every­one Grad­u­ates found that the pan­dem­ic required the imple­men­ta­tion team to slow down and lis­ten to a vari­ety of voic­es to cre­ate an equi­table growth strat­e­gy. This includ­ed exer­cis­es such as empa­thy inter­views among school staff to cre­ate greater aware­ness of the chal­lenges each school faces.
  3. Flex­i­bil­i­ty is essen­tial to over­com­ing obsta­cles. The pan­dem­ic and its result­ing chal­lenges demon­strat­ed the need for flex­i­ble and respon­sive lead­er­ship, part­ner­ships and team struc­tures. Dur­ing the imple­men­ta­tion of the frame­work, part­ners dealt with insuf­fi­cient capac­i­ty, shifts in learn­ing and short­ened semes­ters. The Robert F. Kennedy Char­ter School — an OTCS part­ner in Albu­querque — used flex­i­bil­i­ty to man­age the com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties caused by the pan­dem­ic by adjust­ing the pace and focus of projects as needed.
  4. Cre­at­ing and sus­tain­ing part­ner­ships requires con­tin­u­ous effort. Every­one Grad­u­ates observed that part­ner­ships require in-per­son engage­ment and a shared con­text. This was dif­fi­cult to accom­plish giv­en the pan­dem­ic, which effec­tive­ly end­ed face-to-face meet­ings and led to new com­mu­ni­ca­tion issues.
  5. Devel­op new solu­tions for today’s obsta­cles. Giv­en the unprece­dent­ed nature of the pan­dem­ic, schools and dis­tricts were encour­aged to devel­op and share new ideas and solutions.

The strug­gles stu­dents faced dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic — includ­ing increased social iso­la­tion and dis­con­nec­tion from school — demon­strate the impor­tance of a frame­work like On Track to Career Suc­cess, which pro­vides a prac­ti­cal way of mon­i­tor­ing stu­dent engage­ment,” says Ilene Berman, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Evi­dence-Based Prac­tice Group. Schools and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners play an impor­tant role in ensur­ing young peo­ple are pre­pared for adult­hood. Through this frame­work, they can become active par­tic­i­pants in the col­lege and career prepa­ra­tion of each student.”

Next Steps and Challenges

Although the OTCS frame­work presents stu­dents and schools with a road map to pur­sue careers after high school, plen­ty of chal­lenges lie ahead. As school dis­tricts con­tin­ue to recov­er from the dis­rup­tions to learn­ing and men­tal well­ness caused by the pan­dem­ic, they must com­bat increas­es in absen­teeism, shore up school and part­ner capac­i­ty and work to address low­er post-sec­ondary edu­ca­tion enroll­ment rates.

To do this, OTCS schools in New Mex­i­co and Louisiana will devel­op tar­get­ed, grade-lev­el mile­stones, engage with stu­dent design teams to pro­vide feed­back on the approach and devel­op new strate­gies with com­mu­ni­ty part­ners to ensure stu­dents get the engag­ing expe­ri­ences they need to suc­ceed in col­lege and the workplace.

With the return of in-per­son learn­ing, OTCS schools and their staff have new ques­tions to con­sid­er when it comes to stu­dent engage­ment,” says Alli­son Ger­ber, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Edu­ca­tion, Employ­ment and Train­ing divi­sion. Using the lessons they learned dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and their expe­ri­ences with the OTCS frame­work, our part­ners are pre­pared to ensure their stu­dents stay engaged and on the road to suc­cess­ful careers.”

Learn how to devel­op sup­port­ive con­nec­tions for young people.

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