When the Cleveland School District launched an ambitious $ 125 million college scholarship program Two years ago, the hope was it would change the lives of students in a city with the highest poverty rate in the country.
But district CEO Eric Gordon knew scholarships and a degree wouldn’t be enough for many Cleveland students who come from families earning less than $ 20,000 a year and never make it to college.
Even though cheers still echoed during the stock exchange celebration, Gordon was bringing together businesses and nonprofit groups in his attempt to directly attack the generational poverty and unemployment plaguing Cleveland – a program aimed at connecting thousands of high school students get real jobs with a living wage and a fulfilling life.
Working primarily on Zoom during the pandemic, a team of more than 115 Cleveland executives built Planning And Career Exploration (PACE): Here to Career, designed to create clear pathways to middle-class jobs for all students through internships, apprenticeships, twinning and company visits.
“We have a complete divide between the people who have access and knowledge of all the careers that can keep them out of poverty, and the people who have no access and no knowledge of the things that can lift them out of poverty,” Gordon said. . “PACE is our attempt to bridge this gap. “
Already, more than 70 Cleveland businesses have signed up to be part of the program, including hospitals and a major banking chain.
The effort comes at a time when businesses face a labor shortage as the country emerges from the pandemic, which could prompt Cleveland businesses to train students.
But the Cleveland program faces significant challenges. Similar programs in other American cities have not reached large numbers of students. PACE needs to overcome business concerns about training costs and student behavior, as well as logistical issues associated with having students in the workplace.
It’s also a change of mindset for the neighborhood. The long-standing goal of preparing students for the distinct silos of college or career, which then merged into college and career. shrinks even more.
“College, two-year college, and business school is a path to a career,” Gordon explained. “But the apprenticeship, the internship, the apprenticeship to earn are also (go) directly to the job market. And therefore the objective must be “career”.
A key component of PACE is making workplace learning a standard part of high school for all students, not just those in vocational programs or top college students.
“We built it as a universal goal – everyone should have these things,” said Anthony Battaglia, district executive director of career and college education.
It’s a major challenge that requires a change in the culture of school and business that would set Cleveland apart from other cities. Workplace learning programs in American cities have been unable to be successful for large numbers of students.
In Nashville, for example, where an intense career exploration program has existed for more than a decade, only about 20% of seniors have the opportunity to complete an internship before graduating.
Although European countries have a culture of companies that educate young people, American companies are reluctant for a multitude of reasons, including insurance issues, students’ lack of skills to do the job, and school hours that come into play. conflict with working hours. Transportation is also a barrier, especially for students who depend on limited public transportation systems. Companies also do not have a guaranteed return on their investment.
But many American cities need to better connect students to high-paying jobs that bring economic security and middle-class living.
The nation has a “skills gap” with too many job seekers who don’t have the references for high paying jobs. Others see it as an “opportunity gap” where too many disadvantaged groups have never had the chance to learn what they need to be competitive.
“Many low-wage workers – especially black, Latino or Hispanic and indigenous workers – are trapped in multigenerational lower caste jobs without access to professional exposure, quality education or professional networks, ”wrote Anneliese Goger, researcher at the Brookings Institution. “We need to focus on creating jobs and investing in education that provide all residents with broad career options and several routes to new careers.
Helen Williams, who runs educational programs for the Cleveland Foundation and helped lead the founding of PACE, said her visit to the Netherlands and Finland in 2014 had inspired her to bring elements of the European model here.
“We want students to dive deep into what a professional career looks like,” she said. “Employers have the opportunity to interact with their students and see these programs not as charity, but as real help in the development of the future workforce. “
She hopes PACE can trigger a gradual change in the corporate culture here.
“How do you do that part of the DNA?” Williams asked. “How do you bring people together to make things go well?” It really is a redesign.
Even before the pandemic, Cleveland had a greater need to connect students to jobs than other cities. It has the highest poverty rate – 30.8 percent – in the United States and the worst child poverty rate in the country, with 46 percent of children living below the poverty line.
Families in Cleveland earned about $ 26,600 per year, compared to the area’s median household income of $ 52,100 and the national median of $ 57,600.
Census data shows that only 16% of adults in Cleveland have earned a bachelor’s degree, well below the 30% or more for region, state and nation.
PACE aims to address these issues starting in grade six, when students learn about jobs and finance, and eventually place high school students in the workplace.
The hope is that students from poor Cleveland families will be exposed to ideas and concepts that affluent and suburban parents often teach their children – of careers available to graduates, jobs that match their interests, and how. get the diplomas or certificates to be successful.
At each stage, companies can choose how much they want to get involved: at one end, companies can set up tables at job fairs or let students follow employees. High-end companies can offer paid internships or apprenticeships. The district hopes to eventually offer the positions to all 4,600 high school juniors and seniors each year.
PACE also gives priority to three sectors most in need of employees in the region: healthcare, manufacturing and information technology.
Gordon saw the needs of the Cleveland workplace for years and tried to show students what jobs were available to them, beyond the low-paying retail and fast food jobs that many already have.
The district has established specialized high schools, including one based at the county hospital and one focused on aviation and maritime careers, which do much of PACE’s work by immersing students in these fields while taking preparatory courses for university.
PACE will make these kinds of opportunities available to many more students, while ensuring that the work experiences really help the students. He expects students to do the real work of a job or be trained in it, instead of just looking or answering the phone.
“We all hear about the camp where all you do is have coffee,” Battaglia said. “We want more quality internships.
Paid internships are also a particularly important piece of the puzzle. Gordon said many of his students were already working long hours in fast food jobs because they needed the money right away.
“We have kids and I had this conversation directly: Mr. Gordon, you want me to quit this job at McDonalds and Dave (supermarket) when I know we’re going to eat?” He said. “We have a lot of food. ‘children working in food-related industries due to food shortage. “
It remains to be seen how quickly the program provides opportunities.
Some companies are trying. The Cleveland Clinic, the city’s largest private employer, is committed to providing paid internships for students, having employees serve as mentors, and helping students write resumes and mock jobs. job interviews.
And PNC Bank adapts the PartnerUp program that it runs in its Pittsburgh sites which allows students to apply for work and train for entry level banking jobs. Students are guaranteed at least one interview, if not a job, after the program.
The growth of PACE will always depend on the success of Cleveland businesses with students in the district. Part of that will mean allaying employers’ concerns about the bad behavior and tardiness of Cleveland students, the so-called soft skills that are often a barrier to employment.
“We need to change the perception of what a graduate or district student is,” said school board president Anne Bingham. “I think at least in the downtown business community there is a misunderstanding about what our students are and what they bring to the table.”
“I think we’ll get there,” she added. “I think it’s going to be slow, but I think we’ll get there.”
This article is presented in partnership with The74Million.org, a national non-profit newsroom covering education issues. Patrick O’Donnell is an educational journalist based in Cleveland.