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How to teach skills for post-school success

Pomona USD is ensuring that students are ready for college or a career by redesigning its curriculum to include a focus on the ‘soft skills’ needed for success

Career readiness must go hand-in-hand with academic standards.

Will every student pursue higher education? Not necessarily. Should every student be prepared for and have the choice to attend college, or pursue other types of post-high school opportunities—whether it’s to attend a trade school, serve in the military, or enter the workplace? Absolutely.

College and career readiness has become an important topic of conversation across the nation as policy makers, educators, community leaders, and business professionals look for new ways to ensure all students are prepared to succeed after high school.

What makes this so imperative is that, despite our current unemployment rate of nine percent nationwide, nearly 3.2 million jobs go unfilled across all industries, because the individuals applying for these positions simply lack the required skills (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2011).

So what are these deficiencies in skills? Some involve technical expertise, but the vast majority are known as “soft skills”: attitudinal and behavioral skills, social skills, and general workplace skills.

One thing is clear: As educators, we must face the reality that it is no longer enough to teach students to read, write, add, and subtract. The responsibility for preparing our young people with these “soft skills” falls squarely on our shoulders as well.

One size does not fit all

The “one size fits all” education model that focuses on college entry alone won’t work in today’s workforce reality. To provide true college and career readiness, we must ensure that our graduates can convey professionalism, communicate effectively, work successfully on a team, think critically, and solve problems, among other skills.

The importance of soft skills development drove us to supplement our curriculum and focus on these essential areas as well.

(Next page: How to design curriculum programs with the future in mind)

The shift began when we opted to transform our current college and career readiness standards to include an injection of best practices throughout our comprehensive high school programs.

In July 2011, the Pomona Unified School District’s Adult and Career Education Program was awarded a $50,000 grant from the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators to explore, develop, and implement a program rich with soft skills training; personalized, project-based learning; and career exploration.

We chose the WIN Learning Soft Skills program as the basis for our curriculum. Before launching the program, all of our adult education and occupational career technical education teachers received extensive training on how to integrate it into their classes, which include preparation for such careers as pharmacy technicians, medical and executive assistants, advanced accounting clerks, and computer operators. Later, we extended the same training to teachers in industrial technology classes, which prepare students for careers such as welding, machinists, medical billing and coding, barbering, and cosmetology.

Because of the program’s flexibility, ease of use, and relevancy, we are now in the process of expanding the soft skills curricular framework beyond our CTE elective courses and into the core curriculum delivered to all of our high school students.

The Soft Skills program’s Career Readiness courseware includes 41 competency-based online learning modules, with more than 120 hours of skills remediation per skill—totaling 1,200 hours of curriculum in ten academic and foundational skills topic areas. The topic areas range from reading for information, applied mathematics, listening, and observation to applied technology, business writing, work habits, and teamwork. Videos are integrated into the curriculum to help model these skills in the context of a work environment.

Our students can access the courseware at seven different skill levels, with their starting points determined by built-in assessments. The strength of the courseware is its precise, skills-based placements that allow our learners to be challenged, but not frustrated by work for which they are not yet ready. Post-tests at the conclusion of each module and certificates of completion tell our students and teachers they have succeeded in mastering the material.

Each student begins the coursework with a career readiness skills assessment. Students then continue with targeted online instruction via four units that often are supplemented by instructional units facilitated by classroom teachers. Teachers like the scripted, project-based learning activities that are intended to put learners into groups to work toward a common goal.

Each student is assessed on an individual basis, taking into account the quality of the product that he or she has produced—be it a PowerPoint presentation, video, or written report—and the depth of content comprehension demonstrated. Each unit ends with re-assessment to determine learning outcomes.

The courseware’s direct instruction builds and certifies workplace skills, leading to more than 26 national career readiness certifications. These portable skills credentials set our students apart by ensuring employers or college admissions counselors that a job applicant or student from the Pomona schools has the required basic skills and is ready to succeed.

With the web-based Soft Skills software, we address a wide variety of attitudinal, behavioral, and applied competency skills critical to success in today’s schools and workplaces. By adding these elements to our overall curriculum, we are making the classwork relevant to students, whether they choose college, the workplace, the military, or certification training programs.

(Next page: Unintended benefits—and next steps)

We continue to refine our program and now provide career readiness certification as a value-added component in the Career Technical Education Program. Through the Soft Skills courseware, we can also offer courses that were previously eliminated as a result of state budget cuts.

For example, budget cuts forced us to eliminate our health and safety programs, and we reduced the number of business math and English classes we offered in our executive assistant and accounting technician programs. But now, with the WIN Learning program, we can offer a host of classes online. This means our students can continue on their career pathway without interruption.

We have leveraged the same courseware in accelerating the learning of our GED students in both mathematics and language arts, again with real-world applications. And because the software is helping to bring students up to grade level in core courses, thereby eliminating the need for them to take remediation classes in math, English, or writing, we have been able to expand our elective course offerings to include business writing, applied math, applied technology, reading for information, and locating information.

The work doesn’t end with high school, however. Systemic change can only come about if all stakeholders are involved; thus, our district is a proud member of the Pomona Employment and Training Task Force, which includes representatives from the State of California Employment Development Department, Los Angeles County Work Source Center, the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the Pomona Chamber of Commerce, community colleges, and community health centers.

Our method is one that every community should pursue: Recognize that career readiness must go hand-in-hand with academic standards, and both must meaningfully prepare students for productive lives after high school.

Integrating a variety of critical attitudinal, behavioral, and applied competency skills is key to success in 21st-century classrooms and will result in greater success in 21st-century workplaces. This synergy between educators, policy makers, and business people is helping us deliver improved academic outcomes in our high schools, leading to greater options for post-secondary educational programs and better employment opportunities for all of our students.

Dr. Enrique Medina is director of career readiness for the Pomona Unified School District in California.

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