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When Free College Scholarships Aren’t Enough: Confronting Generations of Poverty, Cleveland Schools Partner With Businesses to Connect Thousands of Students With Good Jobs

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When the Cleveland School District launched an ambitious $125 million college scholarship program two years ago, the hope was that it would transform the lives of students in a city with the highest poverty rate in the country.

But Eric Gordon, the district’s chief executive, knew scholarships and diplomas wouldn’t be enough for many Cleveland students who come from families who earn less than $20,000 a year and never go to college.

Although cheers continued to reverberate in celebration of the scholarship, Gordon was mobilizing business and non-profit groups in his attempt to attack the intergenerational poverty and unemployment plaguing Cleveland—a program to connect thousands of high school students to real jobs with a living wage and a shot at a fulfilling life. .

Working mostly on Zoom during the pandemic, a team of more than 115 Cleveland leaders has built Career Planning and Exploration (PACE): Here to Career, which is designed to create clear pathways to middle-class careers for all students through internships, internships, and job shadowing. and company visits.

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“We have a whole gap between people who have access and awareness of all the professions that can keep them out of poverty, and people who don’t have access and don’t have awareness of the things that can lift them out of poverty,” Gordon said. . “PACE is our attempt to bridge that divide.”

Already, more than 70 companies in Cleveland have signed up to be part of the program, including hospitals and a major banking chain.

The effort comes at a time when companies are facing a labor shortage as the country emerges from the pandemic, which could be an incentive for Cleveland companies to train students.

But Cleveland’s program faces severe challenges. Similar programs in other US cities have not reached large numbers of students. PACE must overcome business concerns related to training costs, student behavior, and the logistical sources of having students in the workplace.

It is also a change in the mentality of the region. The long-term goal of preparing students for the distinct seclusion of college or profession, which later merged into college and career. narrows more.

“College, two-year college, trade school is a path to a career,” Gordon explained. “But it is the same for vocational training, training, learning to make money, (going) directly into the workforce. And so the goal should be ‘the profession’.”

A key component of the PACE program is to make workplace learning a standard part of high school for all students, not just students in professional programs or top academic students.

“We built it as a universal goal — everyone should own these things,” said Anthony Battaglia, executive director of the College’s Career District and Pathways.

Cleveland’s PACE program will start teaching students about jobs early on, then gradually increase to WBL – work-based learning – in high school, so students can test jobs before graduation to see if they are a good fit. (Cleveland Municipal School District)

This is a major challenge and requires a change in school and business culture that will set Cleveland apart from other cities. Workplace learning programs in American cities have not been able to succeed for large numbers of students.

In Nashville, for example, where an extensive career exploration program has been in place for more than a decade, only about 20 percent of seniors have a chance to train before graduation.

Although European countries have a corporate culture that trains young people, US companies avoid it for a range of reasons — including insurance issues, concerns about students who lack the skills to do jobs, and school schedules that conflict with working hours. Transportation is also a handicap, especially for students who rely on limited public transportation systems. Companies also do not have a guaranteed return on their investment.

But many American cities need to better connect students to high-paying jobs that provide economic security and middle-class life.

The nation suffers from a “skills gap”, with many job seekers lacking the credentials for well-paying jobs. Others view it as an “opportunity gap”, in which too many disadvantaged groups have not had the opportunity to learn what they need to compete.

“Many low-wage workers—particularly black, Hispanic, Hispanic, and Indigenous workers—are trapped in multigenerational lower-class jobs without access to job opportunities, premium education, or professional networks,” Brookings Institution researcher Anneliese Goeger wrote. “We must focus on job creation and educational investments that offer all residents broad career options and multiple ways to access new jobs.”

Helen Williams, who directs educational programs for the Cleveland Foundation and helped lead the creation of PACE, said her visits to the Netherlands and Finland in 2014 inspired her to bring parts of the European model here.

“We want students to delve deeper into what a professional life looks like,” she said. “Employers get a chance to interact with their students and think of those programs not as a handout, but really helping to develop the workforce of the future.”

She hopes that the PACE program can bring about a gradual change in the business culture here.

“How do you make this part of DNA?” asked Williams. “How do you bring people together so that it is seamless? It really is a rethink.”

Cleveland School Board President Ann Bingham and Helen Williams of the Cleveland Foundation explain the PACE program at a recent program launch event. (Patrick O’Donnell)

Even before the pandemic, Cleveland needed to connect students to jobs more than other cities. It has the highest poverty rate – 30.8 percent – in the United States and the worst child poverty rate in the country, with 46 percent of children living below the poverty line.

Cleveland families made about $26,600 a year, compared to the region’s median household income of $52,100 and the national median of $57,600.

Census data shows that only 16 percent of adults in Cleveland have earned a bachelor’s degree, well below 30 percent or more for a region, state and nation.

PACE aims to address those issues starting in the sixth grade as students will learn about jobs and finances, and eventually put high school students in the workplace.

The hope is that students from poor Cleveland families will be exposed to the ideas and concepts that wealthy, suburban parents often teach their children—the careers available to graduates, jobs that fit their interests, and how to earn degrees or certifications to succeed.

At each stage, companies can choose how involved they want to be: at one end, companies can have tables at career fairs or allow students to confront employees. In high-end companies they can offer paid internships or apprenticeships. The district hopes to eventually offer jobs to all 4,600 high school students and seniors each year.

Here’s how Cleveland Schools seek employer assistance in educating and training students about jobs that can earn a living wage. (Cleveland Municipal School District)

PACE also prioritizes the three sectors most in need of employees in the region: healthcare, manufacturing and information technology.

Gordon has seen the needs of the workplace in Cleveland for years and has tried to show students what jobs are available to them, other than the low-paying retail and fast food jobs that many already have.

The district has set up specialty high schools, including one based at the District Hospital and one focused on aviation and naval careers, that do much of PACE’s work by immersing students in those areas while also taking college preparatory classes.

PACE will provide these types of opportunities to many students, while also making sure that work experiences really help students. You expect students to do or be trained on the real work of a job, rather than just watching or answering phones.

“We all hear about the internship where all you do is have coffee,” Battaglia said. “We want more high-quality internships.”


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Paid internships are also a particularly important piece of the puzzle. Gordon said many of his students are already working long hours in fast food jobs because they need the money right away.

“We have kids and I had this conversation live: Mr. Gordon, do you want me to quit this job at McDonalds and Dave’s (supermarket) when I know we’re going to eat?” He said. “We have a lot of children working in food-related industries because of the scarcity of food.”

How quickly the program provides opportunities remains to be seen.

Some companies are trying it. The Cleveland Clinic, the city’s largest private employer, has committed to offering students paid internships, making staff mentors, and helping students with resumes and mock job interviews.

PNC Bank is adapting a PartnerUp program it runs at its Pittsburgh locations that allow students to apply for work and internships in entry-level banking jobs. Students are guaranteed at least an interview, if not a job, after the programme.

PACE’s growth continues to depend on the success of Cleveland’s business with area students. Part of that will mean alleviating employer concerns about bad behavior and delays from Cleveland students, the so-called soft skills that are often a barrier to employment.

“We have to change the concept of the district graduate or student,” said school board chairperson Ann Bingham. “I think at least in the downtown business community there is a misunderstanding of what our students are and what they bring to the table.”

“I think we’ll get there,” she added. “I think it’s going to be slow, but I think we’ll get there.”


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