ST. LOUIS — A new pilot program where high school students explore a variety of career paths and start building skills for their dream jobs before graduation launched this school year at two charter schools.
Backed by The Opportunity Trust, Next Prep is a four-year program that helps students have positive outcomes after graduation, according to Riley Foster, educator innovator fellow at The Opportunity Trust.
“What we’ve seen is that post-secondary outcomes for students in St. Louis City are not good,” she said. “A little less than one in 10 high school city graduates will only get a two- or four-year degree six years after high school graduation.
“And then that leaves this big void of nine and 10 students who are not getting a college degree, and many of whom do go to college and end up with debt but who don't have any form of degree.”
Rather than starting post-graduation discussions in the middle of a student’s junior year, the Next Prep program starts at the freshman level where students get to self-discover careers they may be interested in pursuing. Foster said St. Louis professionals in different fields are brought in to educate students about their jobs.
“All this spectrum of post-secondary options exist and how can we give students information in an exposing and engaged way to ensure they are making an informed decision about what’s next for them,” Foster said.
The second year of the program involves students taking more of a deep dive into one or two career paths they are really interested in and connecting with professionals in those fields for job shadowing opportunities, according to Foster. She said students will be engaged in real-life scenarios to build different professional skills.
At the end of year two, Next Prep will facilitate paid internships for students in their field of choice. The third and fourth years of the program are individualized based on the student’s chosen career path, Foster said.
“One thing we’re trying to figure out is incorporating industry recognized credentials into high schools. So, which credentialing programs could students get while they’re still in high school so they graduate high school with that credential,” she said.
Currently, Next Prep is being piloted at KIPP High School and Kairos Academies High School where 115 students are taking part between the two schools. Foster teaches two sections of the program at Kairos.
By the end of Next Prep, Foster said, “The hope is that students will have a robust set of professional skills that are applicable across all industries that we’ve taught based on employer advocacy needs.
“They’ll be connected to people within their industries of interest. They’ll know what those industries of interest are, what education is required for them to get where they want to get and then what they could do further to advance within that career. And then they’ll also have earned some form of academic credit towards that pathway.”
Foster taught math for five years to middle and high school students where they would often tell her, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”
Now, “it’s kind of fun to be teaching something that literally every interaction you have you are drawing on these types of reflections, and emotional awareness and empathy, and how can we build those muscles so that it’s part of your regular existence,” Foster said.
“I have a lot of kids who are just really excited about the career exploration process.”
Right now, Foster is reaching out to organizations and individuals who may be interested in presenting their line of work to students.
In the future, the goal would be to have the Next Step program implemented at other high schools in St. Louis.
Launched in 2019, The Opportunity Trust, which sponsors the Next Prep program, is a nonprofit that “invests in educators and school systems eager to build the capacity required to make significant and measurable change,” according to the organization’s website.
It has a vision to “increase the percentage of children attending world-class schools in St. Louis city from 10% to over 40% by 2028 and ensure another 3,000 students are enrolled in world-class schools in targeted districts in St. Louis County,” the website states.
For more information about The Opportunity Trust, click here.