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How to prioritize the future of historically underserved learners


Catalyze’s new Director Michelle Cheang discusses the Catalyze Challenge and how innovation can improve education equity.

This week the collaborative funding initiative Catalyze opened grant applications for round three of the Catalyze Challenge. This new round of grants aims to reimagine the connections between K-12 education, higher education, and careers for learners aged 11-22 — helping them to build their identities, self-efficacy, and career readiness. eSchool had the chance to dig into details with Michelle Cheang, Ed.D., Director at Catalyze. Scroll down for details on who should apply and how education institutions at all levels can ultimately benefit.

Building on key learnings from two prior challenges, this round of grants will surface and fund innovations in two primary themes — career exploration for young adolescents and activating employer partnerships.

The grant application period opened July 31, 2023, and closes September 22, 2023, with grant awards announced in December 2023. This round of funding will award up to 25 pilot grants between $100,000 and $250,000 to power 6-12 months of exploratory work and early implementation.

Learn more and apply for a grant here.

In 2019, only 52% of students reported that high school prepared them for the workforce. Four years later, data from the recently released America’s Student Report Card showed little improvement. Students gave their schools a C+ in teaching them about potential career opportunities and a B- in preparing them for the future. For those students who do report feeling prepared, data shows a clear bridge between early exposure to career conversations and experience as a differentiator in their preparation for the future. Similarly, data shows that only six in 10 employers say that college graduates possess the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in entry-level positions.

“Successful career-connected learning should help young people cultivate their unique career identities and bring employers into the conversation through innovative cross-sector partnerships. Together, an increased focus on both sides of that same career-connected coin can bring more young learners to meaningful, economically fulfilling careers,” said Michelle Cheang, Ed.D., Director at Catalyze. “And when we prioritize the future of historically underserved learners, as well as partner with schools, higher education, community organizations, and employers who share our vision, we can make waves that unlock individual purpose and economic impact that scales generations.”

While progress has been made to cultivate better alignment between higher education and the workforce, younger learners and many industry partners are often still absent from the ideation and execution phase of new ideas to create purposeful pathways for all.

To date, Catalyze has awarded roughly $10 million in grant funding to 40 organizations through the Catalyze Challenge, which has positively impacted 23,000 learners — of those served through challenge grants, 80% come from low-income backgrounds, and 58% come from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. This round of Catalyze’s flagship challenge is supported by American Student Assistance, Beth and Ravenel Curry Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, the Schultz Family Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

“Through our work with Catalyze and its community, we’ve brought more intentionality to career-connected learning in Camden and Philadelphia. We are excited to see a new round of organizations participate in the challenge and grow the collective impact of the Catalyze grantee community,” said Dan Rhoton, Executive Director of Hopeworks, a round two Catalyze Challenge grant recipient. “There are so many young people out there who are deeply passionate and have enormous potential — yet because of the zip code they grow up in, their whole life could go in a direction out of their control.”

Learn more about Catalyze at https://catalyzechallenge.org/.

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