College & Workforce Readiness

Early School-to-Work Programs Thriving, Report Finds

By Lynn Olson — October 01, 1997 3 min read

Finding enough interested employers may not be the major barrier to enhanced work-based learning that many have previously assumed, a study of 16 such programs concludes.

The study by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., released Sept. 26, chronicles programs that combine learning in schools and workplaces from 1992-93, when the New York City-based research group first reported on them, until 1995-96.

It found that all but two of the programs have expanded since the early 1990s. In addition to adding students and employers, many of the programs have branched out into new occupational fields. They also have created more ways for teenagers and businesses to participate and improved their curricula and instruction.

“The fact that all of the 16 are still alive and well, and all but two have grown,” said Rachel A. Pedraza, the study’s principal author, “indicates that not only can these programs be sustained, but they can actually expand.”

Ms. Pedraza cautioned, however, that the 16 programs--which represent a variety of school-to-work approaches, ranging from career academies to youth apprenticeships--are not a nationally representative sample.

“These are 16 strong programs that are kind of lighthouses, or beacons,” she said. The programs began operating between 1982 and 1992.

More Options Offered

Under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, passed by Congress in 1994, 37 states and nearly 125 local partnerships have received grants to build systems that link learning in classrooms and workplaces. But so far, there has been little evidence about whether such programs can be sustained over time.

The MDRC study, which was done in collaboration with Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based policy and research group, used telephone surveys of educators and employers in early 1996 to follow up on site visits the researchers had made three years earlier. The study did not look at student outcomes.

It found that most employers had continued to take part in the programs, and more employers had been recruited.

In Central Point, Ore., for example, Crater High School began working with 70 employers in 1992-93 and now has a database of 400 employers who are willing to host students.

“In the communities we studied,” the report concludes, “almost all of the students enrolled in a school-to-work initiative were able to participate in work-based learning.”

But in some of the programs, the number of employers and students engaged remained quite small. Some included as few as nine employers or 25 students.

Although companies were willing to participate in a range of school-to-work activities, few were capable of providing intensive work experiences to more than four students at a time.

‘Job Shadowing’

Schools have responded, in part, by involving more students and employers in less intensive ways. These include adding “job shadowing,” in which students follow an employee for a day or more to learn about a career, short-term internships, and work-related projects.

Almost all of the 1,659 students at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Ore., for example, now participate in job shadowing.

The study found a trade-off between program intensity and the number of students served. Youth apprenticeships--multiyear programs that combine highly structured work and learning--had the most difficulty expanding, in part because many students seemed unwilling to make such a substantial commitment.

Still, Ms. Pedraza said, “there is a place for youth apprenticeships,” particularly as one option alongside other school-to-work activities.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • Although federal law specifies that school-to-work systems should establish links between secondary and postsecondary institutions, most programs had given less attention to this area than to others.
  • Nearly all the sites had a full-time or nearly full-time program coordinator.
  • More than half the programs reported that they had attracted a greater number of higher-achieving students over time.
  • In most sites, the schools played the dominant role in shaping, expanding, and sustaining the program’s activities.
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