Take the Lead Colorado: 21st Century Work-Based Learning


By Colorado Fellow Zachary McDowell, CareerConnect Pathway Director at West High Campus, Denver Public Schools


As an educator, entering my nineteenth year of practice, I find myself seeking out new approaches and innovative models for engaging students. A lifelong learner myself, I applied to and was accepted as a fellow in the America Achieves Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship in early 2018.

The Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship “supports teams of educators from across the state to learn about the shifting 21st century economy, related workforce demands, necessary employability skills, and models of college and career development to create a variety of industry-aligned performance tasks.”

The Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship consisted of 28 educators from around the state of Colorado and was led by a team of national experts in the field of educational reform. During our four convenings, we toured a pharmaceutical production facility, a Colorado brewery, a mental health support center construction site and a leading advanced manufacturing company. Each site visit highlighted a glaring need in the workforce development of the future: students need to know and master skills and competencies in authentic settings to be better prepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

As a Denver Public Schools CareerConnect pathway director at the Denver West High Campus, one of the most historical high school programs in the state, I witness daily the thirst for authentic learning experiences. Through our CareerConnect program, we match students with work-based learning programs such as internships, mentoring programs, job shadow events and youth apprenticeship. Over 95% of our West Campus students who engage in work-based learning report back they want more opportunities and over 90% of industry partners report high levels of satisfaction with their student placements.

Work-based learning opportunities can bridge the gap between 21st century careers and the outdated model of K-12 education which still thrives in America today.

The Time is Now

The time is now to radically re-invent the traditional high school experience. Students are connecting across the globe through technologies and innovations which did not exist just one generation ago. Information is at the tip of their fingers and yet the creative application and problem-solving skills inherent to previous generational careers continues to be highlighted as a gap in new hire skillsets.

Traditionally “seat time” models and eight period bell schedules do not allow for students to engage in authentic school-based learning. Shifting towards high-quality project-based learning tasks requires a re-imagining of the school schedule to more closely match the working environments of 21st century companies. Student need to move, collaborate, ideate and revise and oftentimes traditional schooling constraints are barriers to this type of learning environment.

Another critical barrier to work-based learning opportunities is connected to traditional models for the attachment of credits to courses. Currently, work-based learning experiences are attached to elective credit and are not representative of the authentic learning which occurs in industry placements. For example, a student can complete 16-24 hours during the week as a state licensed CNA youth apprentice and still need the minimum 3 units of science for graduation. Authentic work-based learning placements challenge students to explore, practice and apply technical competencies which are more relevant to career placement than traditional learning models. Our educational system must recognize meaningful work-based learning experiences as conduits for learning equivalent to traditional credit-bearing systems.

Debunk the Myths

For decades, Career and Technical Education programming has been stigmatized within a dominant “four year college for all” culture. Twenty-first century CTE courses challenge students to apply baseline skills such as communication and collaboration within highly technical industry settings. Within these programs, students are engaging with technologies and protocols at the school level which can be immediately transferred to top companies in the state. As an educator and parent, transference of learning in an authentic setting is the highest level of “college and career readiness” I can hope for any student.

A secondary misconception about the merging of education and industry is that different “languages” are spoken by the various stakeholders. Our Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship team learned differently through our experience at a construction site in Grand Junction. A lead engineer shared the process of listening closely to the client to deliver the safety protocols necessary in a mental health care facility. Through a ten minute dialogue about corporate responsibility, educators and industry representatives gained a deep understanding of the skillset needed within the industry. Education and industry do not speak different “languages” as much as they are not encouraged to speak at all in such settings.

Take the Lead Colorado

Colorado is filled with passionate educators who champion the value of embedding relevant career exploration and application into their classrooms. Through my work in the Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, I collaborated with educators from around the state. Educators are working in small pockets across the state in places such as Grand Junction, Fort Collins, the I-70 corridor and Denver metro area. Prioritizing connections between educators in the preparation of students for career-readiness should be an initiative championed across our state.

As a state, we have the opportunity to lead the nation on work-based learning and authentic school-based career exploration and development. District-based initiatives such as CareerConnect in Denver Public Schools and the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus are examples of innovative approaches addressing career development. However, as I learned through my work with the Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, our state is filled with educational innovations and passionate champions building impactful systems for 21st century work-based learning.

Colorado is among the national leaders in economic development but our model of success is highly dependent upon high-skilled workers entering our state. Innovative work-based learning programs such as the CareerWise Youth Apprenticeship Program or CareerCoach mentoring program can close the skills gap by matching students with high-needs career pathways. Now is the time to develop systems for economic success embedded in the talent development of our most promising Coloradans.

Through action, collaboration and common understanding the state of Colorado can become a national leader in the partnering of education and industry. We all have a responsibility in recognizing that we cannot wait any longer and must translate actions to outputs for all students in Colorado.


Newsletter: February 2019

Career-Ready Capstones: Looking Back — and What’s Ahead