Research on adolescent development shows that an apprenticeship model, which typically consists of a working partnership between a local business or civic organization and a school, meets many developmental needs of adolescents. During this stage of life, young people crave feelings of usefulness, responsibility and respect, and they long to be part of the adult world.
Many young people best attain these feelings when immersed in that adult world, working with older mentors who respect and regard them as human beings who are capable of learning and progressing. They thrive when they are expected to carry their own weight and doing work that feels immediate and genuine. They become more mature and responsible through the actual work they do in their apprenticeship, learning to communicate effectively with co-workers, bosses and clients.
Robert Halpern, a professor of education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, whose research focuses on after-school programs for poor children and their families, argues that the best schooling for adolescent developmental needs goes beyond the classroom.
During a 30-month investigation of one after-school apprenticeship program, After School Matters in Chicago, Halpern found that participating youths who attend the program a mere three afternoons a week for one school year became more flexible thinkers and undertook tasks with more care. They learned to persevere and understand the value of working through problems. They became more self-responsible and more patient. Their public behavior changed; they became “more mature, more appropriately assertive,” Halpern says in his book, "The Means to Grow Up: Reinventing Apprenticeship as a Developmental Support in Adolescence." These are all skills that serve young people well when they enter the workforce and when they start families of their own.
These apprenticeships, according to Halpern, gave youths “a sense of different ways of being an adult, what it means to be passionate about a discipline and what it takes to become good at thinking.”
Not only were students learning actively rather than passively for the first time in their lives, the experience enabled many of them to begin to overcome years of thinking of themselves as subpar learners. In so doing, their experiences opened up a future that would otherwise have remained closed and influenced them at a critical time in their lives. These “very specific learning and work experiences leave a deep imprint on still malleable selves.”
In some places in the United States, career-based learning is gaining traction and helping to blur the old, rigid lines between academic and vocational learning with encouraging success. Georgia has mandated that all ninth-graders take a career or academic-focused pathway in order to graduate from high school; as a result, one school in Dalton, Ga., increased its high school graduation rates from 56 to 92 percent. The increased vocational education did not lead to weaker academic prospects for students: Nearly 70 percent of the school’s students enrolled in college within two years of graduating from high school.
In Wisconsin, youth apprenticeships are part of a statewide School-to-Work initiative. Diane Kraus, the Dane County youth apprenticeship coordinator, told me about her program. Students at Dane County schools are invited to comprehensive information sessions during their sophomore year, at which they can learn about a range of apprenticeships in fields such as biotech, health or information technology.
The Dane County program sees applicants with backgrounds all over the map. “There’s no minimum GPA to come into the program,” Kraus says. It doesn’t matter whether a student’s GPA is near-failing or over 4.0. What does matter, she says, is that “they are interested in participating, make a commitment to work, and will be a good employee.”
Once students decide upon a program and the business agrees to take them on, they, along with their families and the school, sign a training agreement with the business and begin during their junior or senior year. Most students work 12 to 15 hours a week, and for the majority of students the apprenticeship is integrated into the school day. They get high school or even college credit for the work. The school remains very involved. “We’re monitoring their academics, making sure they stay on track for high school graduation,” Kraus says.
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