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When the Cleveland school district launched an ambitious $125 million college scholarship program two years ago, the hope was it would change the lives of students in a city with the highest poverty rate in the country.
But district CEO Eric Gordon knew scholarships and a diploma wouldn’t be enough for many Cleveland students who come from families making less than $20,000 a year and never get to college.
Even as cheers still echoed from the scholarship celebration, Gordon was rallying business and non-profit groups in his bid to directly attack the generational poverty and unemployment plaguing Cleveland — a program to connect thousands of high school students to real jobs with living wages and a shot at a satisfying life.
Working mostly on Zoom during the pandemic, a team of more than 115 Cleveland leaders built Planning And Career Exploration (PACE): Here to Career, designed to create clear paths to middle class jobs for all students through internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing, and visits to businesses.
“We have a complete divide between the people who have access and awareness of all the careers that can keep them out of poverty, and the people who have no access and no awareness of the things that can lift them out of poverty,” Gordon said. “PACE is our attempt to bridge that divide.”
Already, more than 70 Cleveland businesses have signed on to be part of the program, including hospitals and a major bank chain.
The effort comes at a time when businesses face a worker shortage as the country emerges from the pandemic, which could be an incentive for Cleveland companies to train students.
But the Cleveland program faces steep challenges. Similar programs in other U.S. cities have not reached large numbers of students. PACE must overcome business concerns about training costs and student behavior, and the logistical issuers of having students in the workplace.
It’s also a change in mindset for the district. The long-standing goal of preparing students for the distinct silos of college or career, which later merged into college and career. is narrowing even further.
“College, two year college, trade school is a path to a career,” Gordon explained. “But so is apprenticeship, internship, learn-to-earn, (going) straight to the workforce. And so the goal has to be ‘career’.”
A key component of PACE is making workplace learning a standard part of high school for all students, not just those in vocational programs or the top academic students.
“We’ve built it as a universal goal – everybody should have these things,” said Anthony Battaglia, district executive director of career and college pathways.
That’s a major challenge and one that requires a change in school and business culture that would set Cleveland apart from other cities. Workplace learning programs in U.S. cities have been unable to succeed for large numbers of students.
In Nashville, for example, where an intense career exploration program has existed for more than a decade, only about 20 percent of seniors have a chance at an internship before graduating.
Though European countries have a culture of companies training youth, U.S. businesses shy away for a host of reasons — including insurance issues, concerns students lack skills to do the jobs, and school schedules that conflict with business hours. Transportation is also a barrier, particularly for students relying on limited public transit systems. Businesses also have no guaranteed return for their investment.
But many U.S. cities need to better connect students to high-paying jobs that bring economic security and a middle class life.
The nation has a “skills gap,” with too many job seekers lacking the credentials for good-paying jobs. Others view it as an “opportunity gap,” where too many disadvantaged groups have never had a chance to learn what they need to compete.
“Many low-wage workers—particularly Black, Latino or Hispanic, and Indigenous workers—are trapped in multigenerational lower-caste jobs without access to career exposure, premium education, or professional networks,” Brookings Institution researcher Anneliese Goger wrote. “We must focus on job creation and educational investments that offer all residents expansive career options and multiple routes to new careers.”
Helen Williams, who runs educational programs for the Cleveland Foundation and helped lead PACE’s creation, said her visit to the Netherlands and Finland in 2014 inspired her to bring parts of the European model here.
“We want students to get a deep dive in what a professional career looks like,” she said. “Employers get a chance to interact with their students and think of those programs not as charity, but as really helping to develop the future workforce.”
She hopes PACE can spark a gradual change in business culture here.
“How do you make this part of the DNA?” Williams asked. “How do you bring people together so that it is seamless? It’s really a re-thinking.”
Even before the pandemic, Cleveland had a greater need to connect students to jobs than other cities. It has the highest poverty rate – 30.8 percent – in the U.S. and the worst child poverty rate in the country, with 46 percent of kids living below the poverty line.
Cleveland families made about $26,600 a year, compared to the region’s median household income of $52,100 and national median of $57,600.
Census data show just 16 percent of Cleveland adults have earned bachelor’s degrees, well below the 30% or more for the region, state and nation.
PACE aims to address those problems starting in the sixth grade when students will learn about jobs and finances, and eventually placing high school students in workplaces.
The hope is students from poor Cleveland families will be exposed to ideas and concepts affluent and suburban parents often teach their children — careers available to graduates, jobs that fit their interests, and how to earn the degrees or certificates to succeed.
At each stage, businesses can choose how involved they want to be: At one end, companies can have tables at career fairs or let students shadow employees. At the high end businesses can offer paid internships or apprenticeships. The district hopes to eventually offer the positions to all 4,600 high school juniors and seniors each year.
PACE also prioritizes the three sectors most in need of employees in the region: health care, manufacturing and information technology.
Gordon has seen Cleveland’s workplace needs for years and has tried to show students what jobs are available to them, beyond the low-paying retail and fast food jobs many already have.
The district has created specialty high schools, including one based at the county hospital and one focused on aviation and maritime careers, that do much of the work of PACE by immersing students in those fields while they also take college preparatory classes.
PACE will make those kinds of opportunities available to many more students, while also making sure that work experiences really help students. It expects students to do the real work of a job or be trained in it, as opposed to just watching or answering phones.
“We all hear about the internship where all you do is get coffee,” Battaglia said. “We want more quality internships.”
Paid internships are also an especially important piece of the puzzle. Gordon said many of his students already work long hours in fast food jobs because they need money immediately.
“We do have kids and I’ve had this conversation directly: Mr Gordon, you want me to quit this job at McDonalds and Dave’s (supermarket) when I know we’re going to eat?” he said. “We have a lot of kids that are working in food- related industries because of food scarcity.”
How quickly the program provides opportunities remains to be seen.
Some businesses are giving it a try. The Cleveland Clinic, the city’s largest private employer, has committed to offering paid student internships, having employees be mentors, and helping students with resumes and mock job interviews.
And PNC Bank is adapting the PartnerUp program it runs in its Pittsburgh locations that lets students apply to work and train in entry-level bank jobs. The students are guaranteed at least an interview, if not a job, after the program.
Growing PACE will still depend on Cleveland businesses being successful with district students. Part of that will mean easing employer worries about bad behavior and tardiness from Cleveland students, the so-called soft skills that are often a barrier to employment.
“We have to change the perception of what a district graduate or student is,” school board chair Anne Bingham said. “I think at least in the downtown business community there’s a misunderstanding of what our students are, and what they bring to the table.”
‘“I think we’ll get there,” she added. “I think it’s going to be slow, but I think we’ll get there.”