As the district scales work-based learning, having a clear vision to communicate to students, parents/guardians, and employers will support broader community adoption and increased satisfaction from key stakeholders. Our discussions with those involved in work-based learning illustrated examples of students and employers eager to participate in work-based learning and others who were hesitant to participate or provide positions.
To build an informed opinion regarding both communication and process, the committee sought out two key stakeholders: MNPS’s Work-Based Learning Coordinator Deborah Crosby, and students who did and did not participate in work-based learning during the 2022-2023 school year. Crosby was pivotal in describing current processes and detailing MNPS’s intent to simplify those processes to better support the program’s expansion.
The student perspectives illuminated the barriers and considerations that they and other students face. Two Pearl-Cohn students employed through work-based learning spoke with pride and excitement regarding the support and exposure they receive through this opportunity. They shared how the experienced forced them to better manage their time as they balance school and additional part-time jobs on top of their work-based learning placements. The committee interviewed two additional Pearl-Cohn students who initially chose to participate but soon after withdrew from the program. The conversation led to the following takeaways:
The value to students provided by work-based learning is the personal development gained through experiential learning that will benefit them no matter which direction they ultimately take their education or career. How many of us have changed jobs to do something completely different yet have found ourselves using and building upon skills learned through past experiences? It can seem daunting for a student as young as a high school freshman to feel like they must choose a career path. Identifying and highlighting transferable skills developed through work-based learning such as communication, collaboration, confidence, and time-management will help students see the value in participating.
Additionally, students gain exposure to professionals and leaders resulting in broader networks and understanding of career pathways. The committee heard students’ stories about the mentorship and support they received and the long-term, positive impact that will have. Ideally, work-based learning opportunities support exploration of many career pathways within an industry, broadening a student’s knowledge and exposure of potential career paths beyond what they may gain from a traditional after-school job.
Beyond the long-term payoff of work-based learning, it is exciting for students to experience an alternative learning pathway (i.e., outside of the classroom) to earn high school credits while also getting paid for their work. The work-based learning structure creates flexibility for students who need to work while completing high school by opening their school schedule to receive academic credit for their employment. This, in turn, enables students to graduate on time, earn a meaningful income, and retain out-of-school time for extracurricular activities or additional employment.
The primary value to employers participating in work-based learning is the investment in the future workforce. The program also provides a way for current employees to impact the lives of youth and contribute to an effective public education system in Nashville. Work-based learning helps remove barriers to employment and create upward economic mobility for participating students. While there is an opportunity for employers to create early connections with future employees, it is important to recognize that students may ultimately change their career path. However, the committee heard from students who plan to continue working with their work-based learning employer beyond the completion of the formal program. While this may not be the path for all students, employers should recognize, plan for, and embrace this opportunity.
With continued competition to acquire and retain talent, engaging students at a younger age translates to a brighter and stronger workforce in the future. The committee encourages employer participation not just for the senior capstone but to consider engaging earlier in the K-12 curriculum to build interest and awareness of different career pathways.
For employers, work-based learning also provides exposure to diverse candidates, which enhances the long-term talent pipeline and broadens perspectives within organizations. The voices, experiences, and points of view of youth and students of color can provide valuable insights, new ideas, and a deeper understanding of segments of their market to the companies that participate in work-based learning. By hiring high school students, employers gain the opportunity to influence the career trajectories of motivated students from diverse backgrounds at an earlier point in their life.
The value to parents and guardians provided by work-based learning is the investment made in their children for a successful future. It takes a village to raise a child, and work-based learning creates opportunities for students to learn from professionals outside of their family and school environment. Work-based learning helps students learn more about their interests and make informed decisions about postsecondary options and is not intended to deter students from current or future academic pursuits.
Providing work-based learning opportunities for students may also alleviate challenges for parents and guardians by providing students with an after-school destination that is engaging and productive. Work-based learning may also provide additional income for the household. Finally, providing work-based learning opportunities for students can inspire younger household members who look up to older siblings as role models.
Intentionally communicating the value proposition of work-based learning promotes consistent understanding and expectations for all parties involved. Finding creative ways to communicate early and often with students is essential. The committee believes planting the seeds for work-based learning in a student’s freshman year, if not sooner, will result in a thorough understanding of the program and enthusiasm of the opportunities to come. The benefits of work-based learning can be communicated through marketing materials such as posters, as well as highlighting student ambassadors who have a positive influence on their schoolmates.
Parents and guardians are a critical part of the equation and should be incorporated into the communication channels early. Holding periodic family orientation sessions would help foster the collective understanding of value, timing, and critical deadlines to support the process. With 129 languages spoken across Metro Schools, it is important to offer information and orientations in multiple languages.
Finally, work-based learning may not necessarily be the best fit for every employer. By comprehensively defining the value proposition for employers, MNPS will attract employers that can give students visibility into, and the foundational skills to pursue, high-quality career opportunities over the long-term. At the same time, a clearer definition will enable the district to continue to make thoughtful choices around which employers are best suited to be recruited and selected as work-based learning sites.
Feedback is essential for continual improvement. To better understand students’ perspectives, the district has surveyed participants in work-based learning. The committee also sees a benefit in surveying students and employers who opt out to better understand what is missing. The committee also encourages conversations with employers already employing students but not yet partnered with work-based learning to determine interest and fit.