Making the Link to Career and Life Success: Can K-12 and Higher Education Get it Right?

The model of the graduate, the vision of the graduate, the portrait of the graduate, the college- and career-ready graduate, and many other catchy phrases are being used to express the importance of making sure our students leave K-12 education prepared for the rigor and challenges of college. Though, are the skills that garner college admissions and earn college degrees, the skills that lead to career and life success?

K-12’s Big Bet

K-12 education systems are collapsing academic levels; eliminating tracking at their schools; adopting no-zero grading practices; opening access to advanced placement courses; providing SAT preparation workshops; eliminating course prerequisites; going one-to-one; and placing community colleges in their high schools—all in an effort to ensure that students have equal access to a high-quality education that prepares them for college success.  K-12’s big bet is that if academic rigor is increased for all; and school and policy barriers are removed, then their graduates will be ready for college success.  Simply improving SAT scores, signing up for advanced placement courses, even if not in an interest area, will improve the student’s college admission opportunities.

The Missing Link

By linking equity and academic processes with climate and culture improvement efforts, school systems are realizing greater student success.  They have secured the missing link.  The Meriden Public Schools’ (MPS) climate suite consists of three support mechanisms; a climate survey for students, staff, and families; a getting to know you survey; and MPS Cares—an online portal tool.  These tools provide us with data trends, district challenges, and individual student needs, which drive district initiatives to impact our students positively.  Most importantly, MPS has given students greater voice and choice, launched student-centered learning environments, and got students excited about their learning.

When we look at the probability of students attending college, the following factors must be considered:  reading, math, critical thinking skills, attendance, school anxiety, and social comfort.  Having an academic skills foundation is no longer enough.  A balance between academic strengths, emotional stability, life, interest, and perseverance/grit will increase the probability of students attending college, and more importantly, once there, experiencing success. But when K-12 and higher education value student engagement and interest, allow students to design and create and recognize unique learners, then K-12 and higher education will have the impact our nation’s economy and society requires.

It Starts with You

School systems have set the stage for student success by embracing digital transformations, creating student-centered learning environments, intentional scheduling practices, and personalizing the learning environments for all students (see attached College for All Card).  More and more colleges are looking for students with unique skills sets, not just high SAT scores and pristine high school transcripts.

The “New” High School Experience

At MPS, students in grade nine now participate in career exploration activities and understand the importance of their high school coursework and transcripts, as well as their passion and interest areas.  One-to-one conferences with adult mentors frame the importance of regular attendance, engagement, academic rigor, and school satisfaction. Freshman homework clubs and family dinners provide venues to review the PSAT process and B’s or better incentives, but also to discuss life goals and career interests.  In addition to the activities in grade nine, tenth-grade students participate in pre-/post-college exploration activities, visit four-year colleges, and tour successful businesses.

Eleventh-grade students participate in small group and individual college and career planning meetings, where parents are invited.  Spring SATs are discussed, and preparation classes provided.  However, as more and more colleges are doing away with this one admission metric, schools are rethinking how they use their time and resources.  The district hosts college and financial literacy fairs, and summer college and career academies in district (launching summer 2019), to ensure all students are prepared for the college application process.

Weekly college readiness and career preparation offerings begin in the senior year.  College application dinners and scholarship workshops are provided weekly.  In addition, military, apprenticeship, and community college roundtables are offered.  The culminating activity is a Senior Signing Day where students walk across the auditorium stage with their college, military branch or company of employment logo presented on the big screen behind them.  With the head football coach as the master of ceremonies of the event and the junior class in the audience, it is time for the seniors and the staff to celebrate their success, to show the world they got it right!

Indicators of Success

When supporting college and career success, schools look to provide rigorous programs, career exploration, life skills, and opportunities for independent thinking.  Most importantly, we must change mindsets to ensure that all team members recognize that the best way to love their students is by ensuring that they realize the skills and training needed to compete in a competitive global economy.  Do we provide opportunities for our students to problem solve, debate, design, and build?  Are we preparing our students for jobs that do not even exist? Are we honest about the reality of jobs that will be lost to machines and other technological advances?

Meriden Public Schools’ Student-Centered Equity Action Plan has led to the following results: a 20 percent increase in grade three students reading on grade level; double-digit increases on the Smarter Balanced Assessments; an 82 percent reduction in suspensions, a greater sense of belonging experienced by students and staff; a 20 percent increase in high school graduation rates; and more students going on to attend college. But, the real success will be defined by our students’ satisfaction with their life and career.

Creating a Lasting Link

Creating a lasting partnership will require K-12 education to strengthen relationships with higher education.  With technology transforming society and our schools, it is even more essential that our school systems and colleges together.  Teachers need to guide and facilitate as we ask our students to be digital citizens who communicate, collaborate, and create.  According to Ted Dintersmith, author of What Schools Could Be, students thrive in classrooms where they develop—purpose, essential skills and mindsets, agency, and deep retained knowledge.  Both entities need to listen to one another; understand each other’s experiences; respect the challenges; validate each other’s work, and believe that it is education that needs to change, not our students.  K-12 education and higher education do not need to be rescued from one another; they need to work together, put students at the center, and realize that their individual success will have a direct impact on our collective growth and the future of our great nation.   Wake up; our students are counting on us to get it right!


Mark D. Benigni ([email protected]) is superintendent of Connecticut’s Meriden Public Schools and co-chair of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents.

Thomas W. Giard III ([email protected]) is superintendent of Connecticut’s Waterford Public Schools.

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