There was a time when young people learned adult skills and responsibilities by following actual adults around as they performed their tasks, not sitting at desks and being expected to absorb trigonometry and Chaucer while their hormones and curiosity about the world past the classroom ran wild.
There followed a time when education of all sorts (for the poor, at least) was superseded by long hours at the factory, but people had the sense to change that up pretty quickly—to a sorting system in which some kids (and paths) were deemed vocational material and others collegiate, a heck of a choice to make for someone who's barely sprouting armpit hair and a method that stopped being useful at the end of the industrial age.
Psychology prof Barbara Hofer, writing in the New York Times in 2012, summarized the problem: "High school degrees offer far less in the way of preparation for work than they might, or than many other nations currently offer, creating a growing skills gap in our economy. We encourage students to go on to college whether they are prepared or not, or have a clear sense of purpose or interest, and now have the highest college dropout rate in the world." Not good, whether someone is going to mature into a woodworker, a mechanic, a neurosurgeon or anything else, especially given the cost of college.
To survive and thrive into the third millennium, kids need hands-on experience along with as much critical thinking and communication ability as they can possibly amass, mental skillsets that are ultimately best learned by doing anyway. Fortunately, schools of all sorts around the Hudson Valley are building robust responses to that ubiquitous and legitimate question, "What does this stuff have to do with the rest of my life?"
In the public, sector, there's been a rethinking of the structure of high school itself from the top down. "Students can no longer sit down after graduation and apply for jobs from the classified section. They need career training long before they receive their diplomas," wrote labor secretary Thomas E. Perez and education secretary Arne Duncan in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed piece last month. "The K to 14 model does exactly that. With technical education, experience in the workplace, and mentors in their chosen field, these young people gain a solid career footing and a chance to punch their ticket to the middle class."
Locally, the K to 14 model is available to students via the Hudson Valley Pathways Academy administered by Ulster BOCES. Part of a Cuomo administration initiative that established model programs in the state's ten economic development regions, the Pathways Academy is open to ninth graders from Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, or Sullivan Counties who are at risk in his or her college aspirations is eligible. Partnering with the Hudson Valley Council of Industry and with SUNY, BOCES wants to help students graduate with the whole enchilada: immediately marketable expertise and an associate's degree. The program's graduates get a leg up into the job market, but this is no mere retooling of the "vocational track" of the 20th century; Pathways incorporated a TED Ed club into its programming this year, and there's an arts component.
Private schools also recognize the urgent need of teens to dip a toe – or a whole foot—in the waters of adult reality, and have devised creative responses. At Woodstock Day School, the senior program is a year-long intensive designed to support in-depth exploration of a student's passion. "They can pick any topic at all," says upper school division head Matthew Essery, "and choose a staff mentor. "We connect them with that professional world—in our local community, which is so rich in art, music, science and entrepreneurial skill—and then, New York City's not far. One student recently designed a wind turbine that will fit in an alleyway. He used computer-assisted design and worked with a New York company and got it 3-D printed. He took it with him to the Northeastern University engineering program, and he's working on getting the patent."
At Oakwood Friends in Poughkeepsie, a year-long Leadership class involves students in hands-on leaning placements in the community. "Kids have run the gamut," says director of development Julie Okoniewski. "We've had art students work at the Loeb Art Center at Vassar as docents and get to go down in the basement with the curator; another student was into auto mechanics, so we got him a job placement doing that. There's a Beacon architect, Jeff Wilkinson, who's taken on four students. One kid did an internship right here in the dining hall and went on to the CIA; we've had three go to the Vassar radio station and partner with DJs. Students who want to learn about the financial sector have job-shadowed at Merrill Lynch. Parents are a great resource, as are local artisans and businesses."
And faculty. Humanities department chair Stephen Miller, on the board of the Hudson Valley United Nations Association, has arranged for six Oakwood kids to intern for a year, planning and executing a human rights conference for students from all around the region and other events.
At Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, senior year projects start the summer before and lead to an internship in April. "We've had students intern on Wall Street and in the fashion industry—actually, one even went all the way to Paris and modeled during fashion week," says communications director Vicki Larson. "They work in all different fields, and they keep a journal that gets turned in once a week. They do an intensive study, and what comes out is really amazing. One worked for a music magazine; others have done other kinds of journalism. Somebody built a printing press. We've had students pursue Russian icon painting, ice climbing, story telling. One girl studied with a vet—she ended up learning how to inseminate horses. Others have worked in a local soap and paper factory. And last year I worked with a senior who wanted to study with me and did an internship in my office; that happens every year or two."
Along with the internships and job-shadow time, students also incorporate journaling, research and final papers or presentations into a student's exploration. Whether college will follow immediately, somewhere down the line, or never, the goal is to equip minds capable of thoroughness. "We can work with them to unpack any topic in an academic way. We're good at that," says Essery.
At Millbrook School, the presence of the Trevor Zoo—the only zoo in the United States located at a high school—impacts the career-oriented possibilities. "The zoo provides wonderful opportunities for hands-on science, animal behavior, and environmental stewardship learning," says communications director Daniel Freedman. "We've had students analyzing the DNA in river otter feces, dance students observing the movements of birds, math students analyzing the nesting habits of blue herons. We find that many students get hooked and go on to become vets or work in zoos and aquariums."
Along with the hard skillsets, there's an awareness among all the educators that real-world preparation must include intangibles. Seniors mentor younger students and take on community service projects that may never connect to how they earn a living, but have everything to do with how they make a life.
"Our hope for every student," says Essery, "is that when they go out into the world, they'll be able to do it in a way that deeply satisfies."