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The School-to-Work Opportunities Act:
An Opportunity to Serve All Students

by Mary Wiberg
Iowa Department of Education

Women and men with specialized technical training can expect to earn half a million dollars more in their lifetime than someone who is working at a low-skill, minimum wage job.1 This statement alone is enough to indicate the potential of the new school-to-work transition movement to impact the lives of women and men who might otherwise be channeled into repeating the cycle of poverty. School-to-work (STW) holds promise for many, while at the same time enabling us to imagine what equitable education for all students can mean. STW, in its broadest vision, is a model for opening up the educational system through partnerships with the workplace, a model that can create access for students who have been locked out of the traditional routes to academic and economic success. STW can contextualize learning for all students; it can introduce students to a range of employment options, including careers in technology. And it can provide opportunities for students to enter and succeed in higher education.

Programs must meet the needs of all students, not just those perceived as being vocationally or technically oriented. If a program is perceived as one for "the forgotten half" it will become another tracking system, despite the best of intentions. STW needs to build an infrastructure for human development and productivity that includes each student.

If school-to-work programs are for everyone, programs need to pay particular attention to the needs of individuals within specific groups-students who are female, are of color, have disabilities, or who speak a language other than English. We are at a crucial point in the development of school- to-work, a point where we can draw together the best learning and experience from education, equity, community, and the workplace. As we bring this expertise together, we can evolve a new model, disaggregating the data, evaluating our efforts, and refining the work in progress. A rigorous look at how the program works for all students-for each student-provides the opportunity to build a stronger model.

What is the School-to-Work Opportunities Act?

The School-to-Work Opportunities Act was signed into law in May 1994. The act provides states with funds for designing school-to-work systems to better prepare all students for future careers and education. The implementation money that states receive goes primarily to local partnerships for system development at the local level. But while there has been much discussion among those involved in planning state and local STW systems, to date there has not been the broad-based involvement of all the necessary players-schools, workplaces, and community organizations.

The definition of "all students" in the School-to-Work Opportunities Act is:

"both male and female students from a broad range of backgrounds and circumstances, including disadvantaged students, students with diverse racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, students with disabilities, students with limited-English proficiency, migrant children, school dropouts, and academically talented students."

STW differs from vocational education

While STW is grounded in successful vocational and apprenticeship programs, it expands beyond the traditional programs and reflects the constructivist model of education reform. Vocational education programs are designed to give students initial training and technical skills in specific occupational areas, such as secretarial, auto mechanics, and drafting, through a planned sequence of vocational education courses.

STW systems, in contrast, are designed to integrate academic learning with the contextual learning so successful in vocational education in a way that increases academic achievement but does not necessarily lead to a specific occupation. Rather it provides a solid academic and work-based foundation that enables students to choose from a wide variety of career options. Students in this system would be prepared to enter postsecondary education at both the community college and college levels, go directly into the work force, with the possibility of future education, or any number of combinations.

Yet vocational education is an important part of STW, as is math, science, and social sciences instruction. Some of the impetus for developing the STW legislation is the result of examining how other countries prepare youth for the work world through vocational education.

The STWOA legislation seeks to ensure that, in the preparation of our youth for tomorrow's world of work, every student is valued, provided with contextual learning, and has a variety of paths after high school that can lead her or him to high-wage, high-skill employment. While each local partnership will use a different strategy, the goal should be the same-to prepare our youth for productive employment and further education and, in the process, to increase our nation's international economic competitiveness.

STW systems aim to help students see the relevance of their education by providing PreK-12 students with strong career development activities and by providing both school- and work-based learning for 11th and 12th graders. By beginning with the early grades and continuing throughout the school years, we can ensure that students gain an understanding of all aspects of broad career areas such as health, human services, or engineering and technology, and of the options available to them for future careers.

The most successful STW systems will link with other work-force development initiatives at the state and local levels through collaborative planning and implementation, including the involvement of business, labor, and community organizations. This emphasis on linking workplaces with schools, and on giving PreK-12 students information about workplaces from their earliest school years on, can provide opportunities for all students, not just for vocational education students or specifically targeted groups.

How does STW meet the needs of all students?

STW systems are intended to help all students see a positive future for themselves and their families. We know this purpose cannot be achieved without strategies to meet the various needs of specific groups and individuals.

A major emphasis of the Carl Perkins Vocational Education and Applied Technology Act has been to ensure that the needs of special populations are met. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act goes far beyond Perkins in its intent. One of the purposes Congress identified in the STW act is "to increase opportunities for minorities, women, and individuals with disabilities, by enabling individuals to prepare for careers that are not traditional for their race, gender, or disability."

The act requires the states to develop a training and technical support system for teachers, employers, mentors, counselors, and others that includes strategies for counseling and training white females, people of color, and individuals with disabilities for high-skill, high-wage careers. In addition, states are to set goals and identify the methods (such as awareness and outreach) they will use to ensure opportunities for young women to participate in STW programs in a manner that leads to employment in high-skill, high-paying jobs, including nontraditional employment. Furthermore, states must set goals to ensure an environment free from racial and sexual harassment. The STW act also requires that school- and work-based opportunities, and the activities that connect the two, be provided for all students.

Finally, the act also requires that postprogram outcomes be collected and analyzed, to the extent practicable, on the bases of socioeconomic status, race, gender, culture, and disability. The very success of the STW act will be measured by how well it does serve all students.

Challenges to serving all students

Given the intent of the law, what are the challenges to developing systems that really serve all students? Here are a few of the challenges we will be facing, followed by some recommendations.

The next steps

Planning at the local level needs to include an analysis of who "all students" are and what resources may be available to serve them. We can share our resources. One example might be the development of technical assistance guides that identify successful state and national strategies developed through Perkins equity funds, special education, dropout prevention programs, and so on. We have a wealth of existing knowledge that can be incorporated into STW systems. State STW planners in all states could benefit from training on how to access resources (a train the trainer model), with the goal of maximizing the use of those resources already developed.

The goal of achieving school-to-work opportunities for all students is challenging. I believe it can be achieved, but only if advocates are actively involved in working at all levels to ensure that the intent of the law to serve all students is indeed a focus of our STW systems.


  1. New York State Occupational Education Equity Resource Center, Voice (March 1993).

Models for Serving All Students

by Jenny L. Erwin
Arizona Department of Education

Molina is Pima Native American; Carla is African American; Ramon, Chicano, is third generation American; Douglas is a WASP; Lin Sue, an Asian, is second generation American; and Shalom is a recent Russian Jewish immigrant. These high school students present a unique challenge to the current educational system because of their diverse needs and experiences: one is your basically well-adjusted kid, one is a teen parent, one is a gang member, one is highly gifted, one has a physical disability, and one has a learning disability. The future of our nation depends on the success of each one of these students, but somewhere along the way we have failed them by not encouraging them to stay in school, and we have failed our economic system by not preparing them for moving into the work force. When students are not taught the skills to contribute to society, they will be dependent. We need to make an early investment in students by giving them the skills necessary to move into the workplace.

How do we help the Molinas, Carlas, Ramons, Dougs, Lin Sues, and Shaloms set goals, learn marketable skills, and find their niche in the technologically changing workplace? A goal of the school-to-work (STW) system is to greatly reduce the high rate of high school dropouts. How to accomplish this task is both an awesome challenge and a tremendous opportunity. What works? Learning experiences tied directly to the workplace, teamed with positive expectations for every student, result in the greatest success.

Is there a current model that can provide a framework for serving all students in the school-to-work system? No! There is no one comprehensive approach. But there are a variety of ongoing programs and strategies that have been implemented for at-risk and gifted students, females, and males of color. We can draw from the elements of effective programs and incorporate them into the school-based, work-based, and connecting activities of the total STW system.

The following three models all contain elements that are essential to the success of meeting the needs of all students.

Teen parents' flower business

On the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, is Estrella Mountain High School, serving predominantly Pima and Maricopa Native Americans. The casual observer to this area would not suspect there is a successful commercial flower production business run by teen parents and their agriculture teacher. The business started with one teacher's realization that too many teen mothers were dropping out of school; that no one was helping them stay in school or learn skills beyond what would qualify them for entry-level labor jobs.

An Anglo teacher with a vision saw a way to get the girls back into school and to give them and their babies an independent future. She did so first by caring strongly about the talents and skills of each individual girl. She obtained funding from the Arizona Department of Education's local STW effort, Workforce Compact, and other donations to build a commercial-size greenhouse. Then she found community partners from the banking industry, the tribe, the flower growers, and local plant distributors. Next, she helped set up a child care facility on site.

She established specific competencies for each girl to attain, including how to develop a business plan, and arranged field trips (some involving the participation of her community partners) to give the students a broad perspective on the different aspects of the industry.

Every day the greenhouse is a flurry of activity. Each morning the girls water the flowers and arrange for them to be sold at the nearby convenience store. Every Thursday the daisies and baby's breath are harvested and delivered to distribution centers in the area. The girls smile shyly and talk about their future. Some say that without this program they would be at home, with few plans, little hope, or no direction.

The first student graduated from high school this spring and will attend a nearby community college this fall. In addition, she will be working in a commercial flower production business, thanks to her real-life experience at Estrella Mountain High School. For more information about this program contact:

Joyce Baldwin
Estrella Mountain High School
P.O. Box 809
Route 2
Laveen, AZ 85339

Dropout prevention

The whole community is hurt when there is a high student dropout rate, but one community has found an innovative way to solve this problem. The solution came when singer and actress Dolly Parton, native of that community, designed the Buddy Contract Program for students in the Sevier County schools.

Each year, all seventh grade students in the county attend an assembly on career planning and the value of staying in school. At that time each student is assigned a "buddy," a classmate who will become a partner in the goal of staying in school over the next six years. Each student pledges to contact the Dollywood Foundation if they need special help, and those with significant barriers are also assigned an adult buddy who will be an advocate for them.

The whole community is involved. Members serve as volunteers, tutors, counselors, dropout prevention specialists, and fund raisers because they all want their young people to be successful, productive citizens. Each buddy team that stays in the program until graduation receives a financial reward of $1,000 and is eligible to receive additional scholarship assistance.

This is only one phase of this innovative commitment to quality education for all students. Other aspects include early intervention efforts through strong math and reading programs in the elementary schools, teacher updates, community internships, parental involvement, and the use of applied technology in all classrooms.

What are the results of this effort? In 1992 the first buddies graduated and in 1993-1994 there were 875 buddies who completed their contract. Prior to this program, the dropout rate was well over 20 percent and today it is below 5 percent. Thanks to Dolly Parton's vision and willingness to involve the community in supporting the value of staying in school, more students in East Tennessee are making a successful transition from school to work.

For more information contact:

Jerry Herman
Dollywood Foundation
1020 Dollywood Lane
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863-4101
(615) 428-9604

Annual Voc-Fest

Imagine 400 eighth graders curious about the vocational programs available to them over the next four years descending on an already active high school campus. While the logistics can be overwhelming, the value to the students is definitely worth the effort. Students in Flagstaff, Arizona, look forward to the annual Voc-Fest to get a hands-on opportunity to explore career options.

The purpose of this activity is to increase nontraditional enrollment in the vocational programs and this has been accomplished every year since the program started. In preparation for this fest, all students take an interest inventory, discuss their results, and explore nontraditional career options. They share this information with their parents as part of choosing their high school courses.

Students have a variety of experiences once they arrive on campus. They are met by student guides who serve as role models and tour guides. Then each student visits, for them, a nontraditional and traditional class (for example, boys might go to a business or child care class, while girls might go to a robotics or agriculture class) to use the equipment and technology.

There is strong follow-up to the day's activities. Students prepare writing assignments and engage in decision-making activities. They also have other assignments, involving their parents and the business community, to reinforce how school is tied to the workplace.

While this is a time-intensive activity, the results are paying off. Students, parents, and teachers know that all the eighth graders are better informed about their options and can enter high school with a more realistic idea of their future.

For more information contact:

Beth Packard
Special Grants Coordinator
Northern Arizona University
P.O. Box 6025
Flagstaff, AZ 86011-6025
(520) 523-2210

Checklist for Success

Listed here are elements in these STW programs that make them successful in serving all students. How many of these have been incorporated into your school-to-work planning and implementation?

___Nontraditional career exploration and options for all students, including teen parents
___Child care and transportation assistance
___Nontraditional teacher and role models/peer role models
___Community support for mentoring/job shadowing in nontraditional fields
___Advisory committee representative of the school population
___Collaboration with community, business, and education
___Early intervention for at-risk students
___Parental involvement in career planning and school outcomes
___High expectations and financial incentives for students
___Planning that includes all students
___Varied instructional methods
___Gender-neutral language
___A safe working/learning environment, free of harassment and violence

As you face the challenges of making learning relevant for all students, remember that the ancient sages faced similar challenges. Plato recognized the need for an expansive educational system when he said, "Nothing can be more absurd than the practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus the state, instead of being whole, is reduced to half."

Contact your local equity administrator and diversity specialist to find ways to build the above elements into your school-to-work system. Thousands of students a day, including Molina, Carla, Doug, Ramon, Doug, Lin Sue, and Shalom, are eager for you to get started.

STW and Equity Resources

To order WEEA publications, call 800-793-5076.
Or send your request with payment including $3.50
shipping for the first item, + $0.80 for each additional, to:
PO Box 1020
Sewickley, PA 15143-1020.

School-to-Work: Equitable Outcomes #2764 $4.00
First in the nation! New from the WEEA Publishing Center, School-to-Work: Equitable Outcomes is part of the Equity in Education Series that challenges educators and parents to use different approaches to meet the needs of all students. STW initiatives promote high standards, high expectations, and equity and fairness for students from a wide range of experiences. Placing the diversity of our students at the core of our planning helps us keep the purpose of education firmly in mind within STW, as well as in all education reform. School-to-Work: Equitable Outcomes outlines the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, explains the importance of school-to-work initiatives, describes how gender-biased messages influence girls' and boys' career choices, and teaches equitable techniques that support school-to-work programs.

Chart Your Course: Career Planning for Young Women and Building Partnerships: Career Exploration in the Workplace (set) #2703 $20.00
A two-volume set to develop an innovative industry-based career exploration program for young women. Helps young women increase their self-awareness and better understand how their interests can suggest career paths.

Hand in Hand: Mentoring Young Women, Guide #2685 $22.00;
Ideabook for Mentors and Student Journal#2760 $18.00;
Student Journal #2742 $7.50
Provides field-tested materials for training career women of color to be effective mentors for high school girls of color. The set serves as guidance for mentors and students for their time together, records students' insights as they learn about themselves, and provides guidelines for setting up a program and establishing an active partnership between schools and businesses.

School-to-Career Equity Starter Kit
Available in the fall of 1995, this invaluable resource kit will include a variety of articles, fact sheets, and resources to ensure equity is integral to your STW program. To add your name to the STW mailing list, call today: (800) 225-3088.

Executive Mentoring: Myths, Issues, Strategies #2712 $10.00
Provides guidelines to administrators as they develop mentoring programs and assume the role of mentors. Executive Mentoring assesses mentors' needs, defines the problems they face, and examines the role mentoring plays in their organizations.

Going Places: An Enrichment Program to Empower Students #2713 $40.00
With a focus on enrichment and hands-on, cooperative group learning, this intensive curriculum develops and builds self-esteem, improves problem-solving and decision-making skills, and develops leadership skills of potential dropouts.

Spatial Encounters #2434 $34.00
Games sharpen spatial visualization skills needed in so many workplaces. Useful in tech prep and applied academic courses.

Working Papers Series
Working papers present in-depth discussions on current gender equity issues.

Gender, Discourse, and Technology #2759 $4.00
Teaching Mathematics Effectively and Equitably to Females #2744 $4.00
Legislation for Change: A Case Study of Title IX and the Women's Educational Equity Act Program #2749 $4.00

Gateway to the Future: Skill Standards for the Bioscience Industry
Developed through the collective efforts of nearly 1,000 people representing bioscience workplaces, education institutions, labor unions, and trade associations. Gateway to the Future provides a sound starting point for development of education and training systems to prepare people for bioscience careers. For ordering information, call (800) 225-4276, extension 2397.

Training and Consultation
The Center for Education, Employment, and Community (CEEC) at EDC, with its WEEA Publishing Center, offers trainings and consultations to help ensure equitable outcomes for school-to-work programs. CEEC is working with several states to plan effective school-to-work initiatives that integrate current research and best practice in education reform, curriculum development, and teacher and work-mentor training for all students. CEEC's approach is a unique balance of academic knowledge, technical skill development, workplace skills (SCANS), and hands-on implementation. We assist in the challenge of adapting national skill standards and academic goals to local needs and then use local standards to shape the school- and work-based learning as well as the connecting activities of the school-to-work system.

Our problem-based learning approach helps young people practice higher-order thinking skills as they prepare to succeed as workers in high-performance workplaces. CEEC works with local stakeholder groups as they become communities of learners and implementers of their own local seamless education-to-employment system. For more information or to schedule a training, contact the WEEA Publishing Center at (800) 225-3088.

Additional Resource Organizations

American Federation of Teachers
555 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 879-4400

American Vocational Association
1410 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
(800) 826-9972

Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools
1025 West Johnson Street, Room 659
Madison, WI 53706
(608) 263-7575

Coalition of Essential Schools
Brown University
1 Davol Square
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 863-2408

Coalition of Labor Union Women
1126 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 296-1200

The College Board
45 Columbus Avenue
New York, NY 10023-6992
(212) 713-8000

Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)
One Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20001-1431
(202) 408-5505

ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education
Ohio State University
1900 Kenny Road
Columbus, OH 43210-1090
(614) 292-4353 or (800) 848-4815

ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
School of Education
Greensboro, NC 27412-5001
(919) 334-4114 or (800) 414-9769

The National Center for Researching Vocational Education
2150 Shattuck Avenue, Suite 1250
Berkeley, CA 94720-1674
(510) 642-4004

National Education Association
1201 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036-3290
(202) 822-7783

Office of Vocational and Adult Education
U.S. Department of Education
600 Independence Avenue, SW, Room 4518
Washington, DC 20202-7242
(202) 260-9576

School-to-Work Opportunities Office
400 Virginia Avenue, SW, Room C-100
Washington, DC 20024
(202) 401-6222

Skill Standards Team Office
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW, Room 5637
Washington, DC 20210
(202) 208-7018

Women's Bureau (national office)
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW, Room S3002
Washington, DC 20210
(202) 219-6667

Publishing Information:

The WEEA Digest is published by the
WEEA Publishing Center, a project at Education
Development Center, Inc., under contract #RP92136001
from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of
Educational Research and Improvement. Opinions
expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position
of the U.S. Department of Education and no official
endorsement should be inferred.

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