So much of our work as education leaders is about preparing students for the lives they will lead after high school. It’s essential that, in addition to equipping them with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful, we guide their plans for transitioning into the next phase of their education and training.
The steps we take now to invest in our students’ post-secondary transition can impact the direction of their entire lives. This is the cornerstone of our equity work as leaders. The data shows us that students’ access to college and career opportunities correlates with their race, their family incomes and their parents’ education levels. So it’s our responsibility to make sure every student has access to every opportunity.
When we looked at the data in my school district four years ago, it revealed that our graduates’ post-secondary enrollment rates and persistent rates were below where they needed to be. So we increased our investment in training and partnerships to better support our students’ success. These efforts continue, and we’re still learning what works.
As the coordinator of college & career services, I’ve had the opportunity to see how school leaders can make a transformative impact by focusing on students’ futures.
Here are five steps school leaders can take to make sure future readiness is a schoolwide priority:
1. Establish common language around “future readiness” for every student.
Our district has begun using the term “future ready” instead of “college and career ready.” In conversations about preparing all students for college, I’ve sometimes heard teachers push back, saying that college isn’t the right option for every student.
The idea behind future readiness is to acknowledge that, while not every student will attend college, every student will acquire some kind of post-secondary education or training. This language helps us with inclusivity – emphasizing that this work is for every student.
2. Invest in teachers’ knowledge acquisition by making future readiness part of your PD schedule
Future readiness hasn’t historically been a big part of teacher PD, because there are so many things teachers are juggling – but investing in teachers’ knowledge acquisition can go a long way.
While school counselors are usually fully up-to-date on college and career training pathways for students, our teachers are the ones who spend the most hours with our students. Teachers are often the first people who will field students’ questions and offer students advice about their future planning. Teachers can sometimes offer spot-on advice, but other times their advice might draw only from their own experiences and might not be current or comprehensive.
As a school leader, you can schedule PD sessions to educate teachers about college application processes, helping students find best-fit schools and programs, helping students determine what factors they should consider when evaluating their options and which partnerships and internships exist in your community.
We also need to emphasize the barriers students face – including barriers for ELL communities, students experiencing homelessness and other populations we serve – so teachers know how to pinpoint particular supports.
3. Position CTE teachers as a schoolwide resource.
Career and technical education teachers are experts in supporting future-readiness, but they aren’t always recognized as a resource within their buildings. Invite CTE teachers to offer PD to your staff, and give them opportunities to introduce themselves to the full student body, so students know who they can talk to.
CTE teachers have wide connections with the community leaders and organizations who will be supporting our students after they graduate – in the workforce or in training programs – and you can draw on those connections across your school’s curriculum, not just in CTE classes.
4. Work with teachers to highlight career readiness opportunities within existing curricula.
In Pennsylvania, we have college and career learning standards, but they are often approached separately from subject-area curricula. Our district is working on a longer-term project to guide teachers at all grade levels toward identifying and highlighting 21st century skills and connections between their subject-area and the workforce.
In some cases, it’s a matter of making sure teachers know about all the current career pathways related to their field. For example, we’re working with a science teacher to implement activities related to manufacturing, in collaboration with local employers. Other times, it’s emphasizing the importance of career development habits, so even teachers who don’t teach seniors understand where students are in their career development process and how they can support them.
5. Collaborate with teachers to monitor students’ progress toward their plans – before and after graduation.
We work with our seniors to create graduation plans, and our school leaders and counselors evaluate the plans and support students in reaching their goals. We’ve recently made the plans visible to teachers as part of our school information system, so teachers can look at the plans and affirm whether the students are on track in their classes.
Teachers also serve as additional points of contact when we’re trying to connect with a student who hasn’t yet filled out their FAFSA or college application. Teachers want their students to succeed, so we find they’re eager to support this work – even when it means sending a kid to the counselor during class time.Even after graduation, we work to follow up and learn about whether students have followed through on their plans. This gives our team members an opportunity to reach out for support – and it also gives us valuable information about whether our interventions are working, so we can plan the way forward. If you’re not yet receiving information about whether your students follow through with postsecondary education plans after graduation, the National Student Clearinghouse offers invaluable data for a small fee.
Remember, your mindset as a school leader makes all the difference.
The most important thing is for you, the school leader, to own future readiness as part of your leadership. It’s part of your equity work. It’s part of your work around school culture. It’s part of your instructional leadership. By building a school culture that emphasizes future readiness, and by establishing schoolwide systems to support students’ plans, you send the message to students that you won’t stop caring about them the moment you hand them their diplomas. You show them that you’re invested in who they are now – and who they want to become.