Susana Cordova, a member of the 2018 class of Leaders To Learn From, was honored for her work accelerating outcomes for English-language learners while serving as deputy superintendent of the Denver school district; she assumed the superintendency later that year. Cordova left Denver in late 2020 to become a deputy superintendent in the Dallas district.
Continuing in the theme of equity for all students, she shares her ideas on how an often-neglected part of the curriculum—career and technical education—can be leveraged as part of racial justice work.
It would be easy to feel pessimistic as we survey the educational landscape during this challenging time of interrupted schooling amid the global pandemic. Many of our nation’s students have been learning at home for much of the past 10 months, with limited interactions with their teachers and their friends. Some have been unable to access their school buildings, which have historically sheltered them and provided food for both their bodies and minds. Now, district leaders are confronting the challenge of lost learning time and the duty to accelerate our students’ academic growth.
A mounting body of research on school closures indicates that while all students have lost ground during the pandemic, students of color have been hardest hit, with the learning loss for them almost double that of white students. Longstanding educational disparities have been amplified.
Amid these challenges, however, there are bright spots illuminating a path to success for our high school students: giving them a genuine purpose for learning in high-quality career-technical education programs.
I’ve had the unique opportunity to work in two large urban districts during this pandemic—the Denver Public Schools and the Dallas Independent School District. Both Denver and Dallas serve diverse student populations with many low-income students. Both districts have embraced the charge of creating racial equity for our students. And both have made big bets on preparing students for life after high school by exposing them early to the world of work.
Learning takes on a new purpose and relevance when students are involved in the reasons for learning: in math, for example, so they can get an internship at an engineering firm, or in biology, as a precursor to starting a career as a nurse or moving into a pre-med program.
Denver’s CareerConnect initiative was one of the first places we brought students back for in-person learning. Even as many high schools were still shuttered and students were learning remotely, our CareerConnect students in the medical pathway were able to continue their hands-on learning in collaboration with Denver Health, the local safety-net hospital. They did so safely and with all the appropriate precautions and personal protective equipment, because learning makes the most sense in the context of what professionals actually do.
Denver students are building career portfolios that demonstrate their readiness both academically and with certifications for work, as well as learning the “soft skills” that are critical for long-term success in work and in life.
And prior to the pandemic, students like Marco have worked as apprentices. Marco worked with Pinnacol Assurance, a workers’ comp insurance firm, as an IT apprentice, where his supervisors loved him and his work. Many high school students in both Dallas and Denver have had to join the workforce as essential workers to help their families in these economically challenging times. How much better would it be if all our students could work as apprentices—getting paid the wages they desperately need while learning, earning college credits, and preparing for the high-wage, high-demand jobs our workforce needs—as some of the CareerConnect students have been able to do?
Students who apprentice find new role models and sources of motivation
CareerConnect is the kind of program that has the power to disrupt the status quo. This is especially true for low-income students and students of color, who may never have encountered people working in the industries featured in this program.
I have always remembered Rafael, a struggling student who became a rock star apprentice at an oil and gas company. When I asked him what was different, he told me: “In school, teachers want you to do homework for them. Here, I’m learning for myself.” That motivation and drive is what I want for all kids.
And it’s part of what attracted me to join Dallas ISD. Dallas has a deep commitment to equity that goes beyond words. Its Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, or P-TECH, which couple career focus areas with the ability to earn credits toward an associate degree, are reaching 8,000 diverse, low-income students each year. In 2009, 7 percent of Dallas ISD students completed an associate degree within six years after graduation; last year, 628 students earned associate degrees alongside their high school diplomas. This is in a district where 85 percent of the population are economically disadvantaged and 91 percent are Latinx and Black.
Dallas students at Conrad High School exemplify the promise of what is possible. Conrad serves an incredibly diverse population. Students come from over 30 countries; ninety-five percent of the students are either Black, Latinx, or Asian, and 99 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Conrad became an Early College/P-TECH school nearly five years ago, and its results are staggering.
In the Conrad graduating class of 2020, 90 percent of the early-college students graduated with associate degrees. And students at Conrad are able to select from five National Academies Foundation-certified academies, in engineering, finance, health science, hospitality and tourism, and information technology, all of which are high-wage, high-demand jobs in the Dallas region. This enables them to earn certificates that will help them begin their careers in highly paid positions, or transfer to college with up to 60 credits—well on their way to a bachelor’s degree.
Early access to the workforce is a form of racial equity
Last year, two Conrad graduates went directly into the workforce in IT, making higher wages than an average first-year teacher, and several Conrad students are interning in IT this year as well. Through these opportunities, Conrad Principal Temesghen Asmerom is creating racial equity, every day, for his students.
The challenge we now face is the fact that many of our low-income students and students of color at Conrad—and in Denver and across the nation—have opted into remote learning or attending schools that do not have in-person learning yet. The impact of this disruption, and the unfinished learning our students are experiencing, have the potential to put the lives of millions of students off track.
We are facing a critical juncture as a nation, and now we must double down on strategies, like strongly articulated career-technical education pathways, that we know work. We have to rethink what school can look like and how we can rapidly engage our students to make up for lost time. It is critical for our ability to prosper as a nation.
Over the next five years, students in both Denver and Dallas will be leaving high school and starting their postsecondary lives in a dramatically different world. These differences will force us to confront the inequities that have so long simmered in our schools and have now been laid bare with brutal clarity.
But even as we grapple with the future, we have the opportunity to be more connected and find innovative solutions that increase racial equity. CareerConnect and P-TECH provide the blueprint for how to accelerate learning for our students, particularly our Black and Latinx students, and how to assure they will emerge from this pandemic ready to meet the challenges of our new world.