Opening Doors to Break Down Barriers

December 12, 2019

VPP’s Ready for Work initiative is a cross-sector investment in Prince George’s County, MD designed to ensure young people in Prince George’s County Public Schools graduate from high school on time and career and college ready. The goals of Ready for Work also include investing in the capacity of nonprofit organizations to strengthen their ability to serve more young people and collaborate with each other. Ready for Work operates across the County and directly in Suitland, Oxon Hill and High Point High Schools.

We sat down with Suitland High School Assistant Principal, Taryn Washington, to talk about how teachers in the school’s Career and Technical Education program have been shifting their teaching approaches and the impact that professional development support through VPP’s Ready for Work initiative had on those efforts during the last school year. VPP continues to provide ongoing professional development opportunities through Ready for Work.

Doors are flying open at Suitland High School. Like classrooms in many schools, Career and Technical Education (CTE) teachers kept their doors closed for quiet studying. But recently VPP’s Ready for Work initiative has helped shift teaching approaches, creating lively classrooms full of hands-on learning – and students are excited to show off their new skills.

Through investments in Ready for Work, the Prince George’s County school system is further enriching their CTE staff development through Professional Learning Communities. Each community is organized around a particular topic so that there is a dedicated team to learn about it and find solutions. Teachers become experts on their topic, then share their learning with the rest of their colleagues to ensure that best practices are put into place.

Career and Technical Education programs bring challenges and lessons from real-world jobs into the classroom, ensuring that students have the skills to start and build a career the moment they leave the graduation stage.

Suitland’s CTE programs benefit students by providing the opportunity for them to learn from teachers who come from the industry through these career-focused programs of study. These teachers offer perspective into the demands of real-world jobs, and schools provide them support on how to present that information to students in a compelling way.

With VPP support, the new CTE teachers received training from the Southern Regional Education Board’s Teaching to Lead professional development program. An instructional specialist, Gaye Martin worked with teachers in the nursing, automotive, construction and culinary classes to help them design questions to foster deeper learning and create engaged activities that expose students to relevant industry-related experiences.

Martin’s coaching sparked an “a-ha” moment in the way teachers structured their classes: Rather than allocating entire days for students to learn the theory of a profession and separating it from practice, curricula were redesigned to focus on providing hands-on learning daily. Learning to formulate lesson plans built on this hands-on approach not only broke up the pace of class to prevent monotony, but also created the action and experience that students need to truly understand the subject matter.

Teachers combine professional development with best practices from peers shared at conferences. Through Ready for Work, CTE teachers at each of the three Ready for Work schools head to national conferences to network with other teachers and bring back lessons they can present to their fellow faculty members, breaking down barriers between departments.

“Those teachers came back on fire,” says Suitland High School Assistant Principal, Taryn Washington. Teachers returned to classrooms reignited and ready to teach their students new techniques to help them retain their learning. For example, CTE teachers taught their students better note-taking practices.

The end goal is for every student to graduate ready to take the next step on their journey, whether that’s starting their career or heading to college. And to begin a career, many of them need the industry certifications that they can earn through these CTE programs of study, proving they possess relevant skills for the industry. With new teaching techniques and better lesson plans, teachers and students gained confidence in their classes, and students were able to learn the material and pass their certification exams.

For students who needed extra help, schools were able to access mini-grants to pay for after-school tutoring. The tutoring provided students more time and individualized instruction which enabled them to learn the concepts that they struggled with during class. The extra effort, time and study techniques allowed these students to master the material and obtain their industry-recognized credentials.

And students want their peers, teachers, and school leaders to see their improvement: CTE classrooms now often leave their doors open so people passing by can see students in action, whether they’re learning about the culinary or nursing industries. When people can see learning and students have the chance to demonstrate their skills, students feel excited and engaged in their class.

“One of my special education students is very quiet and never talks to anybody,” says Ms. Washington. “But now you can see him in there having a conversation, raising his hand, answering questions. And it’s breathtaking to see! He wanted me to see him answering. He’s looking at me from the side of his eye. The students want you to know they’re learning.”

During the 2017-18 school year, 100 percent of students in construction and nursing passed their certification exams. Efforts are underway to improve all the CTE classes to ensure all students can graduate on time, earn their certifications and begin life after high school on the right foot. That includes integrating the CTE curriculum with classes like math and science, showing students how what they learn in those classes can be applied in work settings.

Ms. Washington says, “Some of the kids move in cohorts. Most of the students from construction are in environmental science, so how can we link those? We want to be able to branch CTE learning into the core content areas, so that’s where we want to have stronger relationships.”

Ready for Work continues to support this kind of innovative work and break down barriers to help our partners come together to open more doors that don’t just show students learning: They serve as the gateway to a better future.