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More high schools forge a path to careers

Date Published: August 29, 2019

Author: Jennifer Fenn Lefferts

Everett High School is hoping to better prepare students entering the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), Burlington High School is emphasizing informational technology, and Brockton High School is focusing on the health care industry.

As part of the state’s Innovation Pathways program, more high schools are creating specific college and career options to better engage students, prepare them for life after high school, and help businesses meet workforce demands.

“Knowing a lot of students are disengaged, we think of innovation pathways as a great way to bring learning to life,’’ said Jennifer Gwatkin, Innovation Pathways lead for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “It’s getting them out of the classroom and into a work setting where they are getting hands-on experience and exposure in an industry.’’

Launched in 2017, Innovation Pathways gives students experience in a specific high-demand industry — such as information technology, engineering, health care, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing — through coursework at the school and local colleges, and internships with local employers.

Students earn college credits, at no cost to them, and gain insight as to whether the field is something they want to pursue in college or as a career, or even earn industry-approved certificates and credentials.

“Hopefully they’ll be inspired to go on and pursue that [field] beyond high school and ultimately work in that industry and be successful. It’s a win-win for the Commonwealth,’’ Gwatkin said.

Agawam, Brockton, and Burlington high schools, as well as Atlantis Charter School in Fall River, will launch new Innovation Pathways programs this fall after receiving official designation status from the Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education.

Twenty-five high schools now have Innovation Pathways programs designated by the state. They include Tewksbury (STEM engineering); Danvers (advanced manufacturing, information technology, environmental and life sciences, health care and social assistance, and business and finance); Lowell (health care and environmental science); and Norwood (health care).

There are five guiding principles of the Innovation Pathways program. They are equitable access, meaning all students can participate; guided academic pathways; enhanced student support; connection to career; and effective partnerships.

Schools choose the pathways that are most relevant to their students and region. Brockton High School is focusing on health care, for example, because it is the region’s biggest industry.

“It’s all about the students and providing them with better opportunities,’’ said Michael Thomas, Brockton’s interim superintendent. “It gets them interested and engaged in their learning. Engaged students perform much better.’’

He said the school already offers certified nursing assistant and medical interpretation programs. The Innovation Pathways designation will allow the school to expand into areas such as physical therapy, health care business, human resources, and ultrasound and MRI technicians.

“We are looking at almost everything in the health care industry to give our kids access,’’ Thomas said.

Gwatkin said all designated schools received funds to help plan the program, but only the first seven designees were awarded grant funding to help implement the pathway.

Erick Naumann, Everett High School principal, said Innovation Pathways is a perfect fit as the school restructures into learning academies.

Starting this year, all students at Everett High will select a learning academy. All freshmen will go into the Freshmen Learning Academy, after which they can choose from STEM, business/law/hospitality, health care/public service, and construction/machinery/architectural design. There are several pathways in each academy and the school has more than 100 businesses partners.

“We are undergoing a transformation here and trying to make learning more relevant, student-centered, and working on activities that are meaningful and driven by their interest,’’ Naumann said.

Naumann said the school first started a STEM focus a few years before the state introduced the Innovation Pathways program. He saw great success by breaking down the large 2,000-student high school into smaller learning communities and decided to expand the concept. In addition to STEM, the school also has received a health care designation through the Innovation Pathways program.

“We want to change the school and experience,’’ he said.

In addition to the academy classes, students take the typical required classes such as English, math, science, and social studies.

Shereen Tyrrell, a computer science teacher and innovation pathways coordinator at Burlington High School, said the goal there is to expose students to as many career opportunities as possible.

“The whole idea behind it is a simple notion of you can’t be what you can’t see,’’ she said. “Part of the goal of our work at the high school is to introduce them to career possibilities and help them uncover their own strengths and weaknesses.’’

She said the program has allowed the development of an information technology pathway to help meet the high demand for jobs in the region. Computer science jobs are the No. 1 source of new wages in the United States, she said, with a half-million unfilled openings nationally. In Massachusetts, there are nearly 18,000 open IT jobs.

“Our goal is to prepare students for high-demand careers that require a foundation in computer science,’’ she said. “We hope to help show students that it can be for everyone, not just a particular type of person.’’

In addition to offering a variety of classes to students, the high school has developed a “flipped internship’’ in which industry mentors visit the school weekly to offer guidance and provide workshops.

“All of this works to further the goal of showing students the possibilities that exist,’’ she said.