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Modern apprenticeship programs give young people a chance to train for future healthcare careers, among others. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

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At least in word — if not always in deed — school districts across the United States have shifted from preparing students for college or careers, to preparing students for college and careers. District missions and visions have been re-written to reflect efforts to ready graduates for both paths, a signature goal of former President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top education program.

But the difference between word and deed is an important one. And closing this gap is a major challenge for schools.

In Colorado, there’s a nascent effort to use apprenticeships to give high schoolers work experience, and to do so in high-wage, high-demand career fields. At the end of the apprenticeships, which last three years, students have on-the-job experience, a useful credential in hand and one year of college credit. They also earn about $30,000 in wages over the duration of the program.

The program, CareerWise Colorado, has placed 116 apprentices from four school districts with 40 employers this year, its first. Students split their time between a traditional classroom, the workplace and a training center, where they receive technical instruction they’ll need on the job. The program starts the summer before a student’s junior year and ends one year after high school graduation.

Related: After decades of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople

Gretchen Morgan, president of CareerWise Colorado, a nonprofit intermediary that brings schools together with employers, said during a panel at the Global Learning Network conference last month in Boston that the program is designed to meet the needs of students and companies alike. That’s what should make it sustainable.

For companies, there’s fresh talent and a financial return on their investment in students. At the beginning of the apprenticeship, students are paid more than their productivity might warrant. But by year three, they’re significantly more productive than their wages. In the Swiss model on which CareerWise is based, companies see an average return on investment of about 10 percent.

In Switzerland, 70 percent of young people choose to do apprenticeships through their schools.

Students, of course, earn money, along with the credential, transfer credit to college and work experience that could lead to a full-time job. They also build a professional network, which Morgan said can go a long way toward alleviating inequality.

“People have the networks they are born into,” she said. Children of white-collar parents often receive professional exposure early on that helps them make informed decisions about career pathways. For students who aren’t born into these networks, school-based apprenticeships can help create or expand them.

CareerWise has made sure to limit barriers to entry for prospective apprentices. There is no GPA requirement to apply. Students just need to be able to graduate on time and have enough space in their schedules to accommodate the program. Morgan said Denver Public Schools has been particularly committed to supporting apprentices who need extra academic help. High-achieving students also tend to be drawn to the program as a way to make themselves more marketable for future jobs.

Related: Economic reality marries age-old idea — apprenticeships — with college

CareerWise did find it more difficult than expected to recruit students, however. School counselors and parents, especially, had to be convinced that this modern apprenticeship system wasn’t a second-tier alternative to college, as traditional vocational education has sometimes been. CareerWise’s leaders stressed to families that the companies partnering with their program are in high-growth fields — information technology, advanced manufacturing, business operations, healthcare and financial services.

Bob Schwartz, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-leader of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, said at the Boston conference that many career-focused programs in high schools around the country now emphasize partnerships with similar industries, in part to change the image of career education.

And Schwartz expects the popularity of career education would be very different if parents were removed from the equation, and young people themselves could choose between a traditional high school education and an opportunity to mix work and learning, earn money and a credential with labor-market value, and still leave open the option of post-secondary education.

“If we put that choice to young people, I’m sure they would vote with their feet,” Schwartz said.

In Switzerland, which provided the inspiration for CareerWise, fully 70 percent of young people choose the apprenticeship route.

In Colorado, CareerWise hopes to expand over the next decade to serving 20,000 apprentices per year — 10 percent of the state’s juniors and seniors. And that’s a start.

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