Career Success Spotlight: AchieveMpls

January 16, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation 

NCAN member AchieveMpls is the strategic nonprofit partner of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), whose mission is to “rally community support to inspire and equip Minneapolis students for careers, college and life.” AchieveMpls operates in 10 MPS high schools and delivers college and career planning services to over 3,500 students annually through college and career centers.

The organization also provides “work-readiness training, paid internships and professional mentoring to over 700 Minneapolis youth each year in partnership with 150 top Twin Cities employers,” and engages over 800 volunteers in meaningful opportunities with students. AchieveMpls’s Career Readiness Initiative (CRI) has taken the program - and the students it serves - to all-new heights. Given NCAN’s work with Strada Education Network on the topic of connecting college and career success, AchieveMpls is the perfect fit for a member spotlight highlighting its efforts.

Via email, I had the chance to interview Senior Program Director Leah Corey, CRI Program Manager James Houston, and Manager of Monitoring and Evaluation Lauren Walker Bloem. What follows is a Q&A transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity.

I see that the impetus for the CRI was “growing demand for young talent in a wide variety of dynamic high-wage industries,” but what actually got the initiative off the ground at AchieveMpls? What made your staff feel that AchieveMpls was the right organization to do this work?

AchieveMpls is the strategic non-profit partner of the MPS district. In this capacity, we provide a number of services and supports to MPS. One of these services is to provide staffing for the Career and College Centers (CCC) located in every comprehensive high school across the district. Over the past 10 years, our primary focus within the CCCs has been on college access – which for our purposes has meant helping students apply to and enroll in two- and four-year colleges.

Our team realized that we can and should be doing more to support students who are not interested in attending a traditional two- or four-year institution. We are already a critical partner in the district’s effort to ensure that all students are college- and career-ready. Taking on this work, which will help all students regardless of postsecondary plan, was a no-brainer for us.

What has the early experience been like at Edison and Roosevelt high schools, which have been implementing the CRI?

The experience has been incredible. Not only are we serving more students at each of the pilot sites, but we are providing greater depth and breadth of services to students and the wider school community. We have been able to test out different career planning strategies and determine what resonates most with students. This is helping us think about scaling the initiative. In addition, the CRI is also helping our staff who served in these buildings long before the CRI become more effective in how they use their time.  

Piggybacking off of the above, what has the stakeholder reaction or buy-in been so far from school staff, students, parents, and others?

The reaction across stakeholders has been incredibly positive.

The school district recognizes the importance of this work, which is instrumental in ensuring we operate effectively. Schools are reporting that they have a greater capacity to support all students and are seeing shifts in how staff and the community talk about pathways that do not involve a traditional college. At the end of our first year of the pilot, we conducted a developmental evaluation to determine what worked and what to adjust for next year. During an interview, one of our principals told us that its CCC had been transformed from a place mostly frequented by four-year-bound students to a place where any student can get what they need.

In addition, the business community is excited to have a partner in the schools. We often hear businesses talk about their looming workforce shortage, and this initiative gives them the opportunity to connect directly with students who will undoubtedly be their future workforce.

Can you describe the kind of programming that you are using to bring career success knowledge to students?

We are focusing much of our school-based effort on connecting students directly to experiences in which they can gain first-hand knowledge of what it takes to excel in particular industries. Our central office staff works to cultivate relationships with a diverse set of employers across sectors and facilitate connections with school-based staff. We are approaching career experiences from a developmental perspective that is aligned with our district’s existing postsecondary planning graduation requirement, called My Life Plan.

In 9th grade, our staff focuses on supporting students in self-exploration. This includes a lot of exploratory inventories. In 10th grade, we engage in broad exposure of each career field through practices like career speaker series and informational interviews. These experiences give students the opportunity to learn the skills and knowledge required for success in each career field.

In 11th and 12th grades we offer more targeted, pathway-specific exposure like worksite tours and job shadows. These give students insight into specific careers and help students build a professional network. Recently, we partnered with Graco, a large international manufacturing company based in the Twin Cities, to bring in students to tour the facility and meet with Graco employees. This was a great experience for our students who thought they might be interested in a career in business and manufacturing. Not only did they get to tour the facility, they got to meet with a number of professionals from across departments to learn about the diverse opportunities that exist within a large company.

We also leverage STEP-UP Achieve, our premier youth employment program that AchieveMpls runs jointly with the city of Minneapolis. In addition to these opportunities, we provide in-depth counseling so that students can process all of these experiences with a caring adult and integrate what they are learning into their post-secondary planning.

Finally, we are trying to be intentional about getting professionals of color connected as volunteers. Roughly 70 percent of the students attending a school with a CCC are students of color, and we believe it is imperative that students see themselves in the companies and industries they are learning about through our work.

What strategies have been most successful in helping you to secure buy-in from local companies?

We have been strategic in cultivating relationships with employers. In particular, we have been looking at local workforce data to drive which employers we seek out. We are interested in which employers will have jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage, have opportunities for growth within the company or industry, and will have openings in the next five to 10 years. We talk with these companies about our capacity to help connect them with their future workforce and give students a meaningful way to learn about the diverse opportunities that exist.

In addition, we also are very cognizant of the quality of contact between our organization and employers. We maintain a customer service orientation when engaging with employers – we reply promptly to inquiries, put on organized events, and work to find students who we believe are genuinely interested in learning about this particular company or industry.

In general, securing buy-in from local companies to engage programmatically with the CRI hasn’t been a huge uphill battle. This is likely because Achieve has established itself as a strong partner to employers through our work on STEP-UP Achieve.

The CRI website mentions “whether that means two- or four-year college, trade school, certificate programs, apprenticeships or other pathways.” How are you talking to students about these various pathways in terms of cost and benefit, pros and cons?

Students are at the core of everything we do. This means that we take a very individualized approach to support our students through the postsecondary planning process. We always start with exploring areas that are important to the student. We ask about desired length of schooling, financial considerations, long-term plans, family dynamics, etc.

However, as we engage in these conversations, we are armed with data and general information regarding Minnesota’s changing workforce. While we always meet students where they are, we try to equip students with facts about the real deal of various careers. This is one reason why we are so fortunate to have a strong volunteer base. Our volunteers, who represent all career fields, can speak to the specifics of what various degrees mean once they are in the field.

What are the outcome metrics that you are using to evaluate the success of the CRI?

When we look at our historic National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) enrollment data, we see that between 60-65 percent of students from MPS enroll in an institution within the first year of graduating high school. Yet our end-of-year application data would lead us to believe that closer to 80-90 percent of students intend to go based on applications completed.

These data tell us that we need to be doing something different to support students in their postsecondary planning. Our hypothesis is that if we provide more hands-on experiential career exposure to students and support students in connecting these experiences to their post-secondary plans, they will enroll in a more appropriate postsecondary institution and persist through school at higher rates.

There are inherent challenges with only using NSC data, however. While NSC tracks many technical programs, it doesn’t track apprenticeships, in-house training programs, and direct entry into the workforce. We are also working to access our statewide longitudinal data system to understand student-level economic outcomes specifically for students who participate in other postsecondary training programs not tracked by NSC. Since much of this data is delayed, we do not have any outcome data for our first pilot year. We hope to get this in the next few months.

The short-term metrics that we track are postsecondary plan completion and participation rates in various exploration events.

Can you tell us more about the logistics of “work-site tours, job shadowing and other site-based activities”> How often are these activities happening, for how many students, etc.?

This really depends on the nature of the event, the relationship that we cultivate with the employer, and the level of interest among students. The Graco trip, for example, was initiated by the company and they determined what their capacity was. We have also partnered with companies where we have planned an event jointly with a company or organization. For example, one of our school-based staff is partnering with one of her Career and Technical Education teachers to plan a job shadow for a group of 30 students at a local medical center.

Generally, we have monthly offerings that include multiple touchpoints with various companies. This year we are planning monthly events around Minnesota’s career wheel. Each month focuses on one of six career fields. The events we plan within a given month all tie back to one of the fields. This has been a helpful framework for organizing events. It also helps students who might be interested in digging into a particular field have multiple opportunities to experience something new.

What are the things I have not asked about and that you think are valuable for people to know?

I think it is important to think about how this work intersects with other work taking place within school districts. For example, Career and Technical Education and Social and Emotional Learning are two areas that have deep intersection with preparing for the workforce.

We are partnering with district staff to better align this work to these areas. Many educators have initiative fatigue – they see district initiatives come and go. We want to think about how this work fits seamlessly into the existing work of supporting our young people so that it isn’t viewed as just another initiative, but rather something that can transform the way we prepare students for the future.  

Thank you very much to Leah, James, and Lauren for their thoughtful answers and to AchieveMpls for its NCAN membership and work in this area! To learn more, remember to visit www.collegeaccess.org/career.

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