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U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks at the Unlocking Pathways Summit, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at the Community College of Aurora. The summit convened policymakers, K-12 and higher education leaders, and industry executives from across states to explore how to fill critical workforce gaps and better prepare students for in-demand jobs. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

High schools as they are designed today haven’t changed in more than 150 years, or as U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona calculates it, over the course of two pandemics.

Schools, he insisted, must change the ways they educate kids. That’s a big part of why the country’s top education official visited Colorado on Thursday, when he announced a new federal $25 million grant program that will give school districts and community and technical colleges funding to restructure the last two years of high school so that students are transitioning into higher education more quickly and developing skills that will matter in the workforce. 

Cardona, who is in the middle of a four-part workforce development summit called the Unlocking Pathways Summit, spoke at the Community College of Aurora about the urgent need to create more seamless transitions and collaborations among schools, colleges and universities, and industry leaders — particularly as they sit on opposite sides of the same goal to connect students with meaningful careers. 

“For too long, we’ve treated the walls between our K-12 systems, our college systems and our workforce systems like they’re set in stone,” Cardona said to a room of leaders in K-12 and higher education, policymakers and industry executives from multiple states. “We’ve maintained in this country a ‘four-year college or bust’ mentality, and that leaves too many students behind.”

Before interviewing Gov. Jared Polis about steps Colorado has taken to direct students to in-demand jobs, Cardona raised concerns about what he sees as a sense of complacency trailing the height of the pandemic, particularly with too few students of color and women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We’ve normalized that,” Cardona said. “We’ve allowed thousands of high schoolers to graduate without pathways to rewarding careers.”

“It’s time to raise the bar, and that starts with a total reimagining of high schools in this country,” he added, noting that college will be “one but not the only pathway to a bright future.” 

He hit on the need for schools to hire career advisors who understand regional workforce opportunities, expand paid on-the-job learning experiences and internships beginning in high school, enable students to get a jumpstart on learning the trades in fields like welding and coding, and pushing students to earn at least a dozen college credits in college-level courses before graduating high school.

Those efforts mirror some of Colorado’s priorities in training students for jobs and filling critical workforce gaps, Polis said during the conversation with Cardona.

“I believe that every high school student should at least graduate with some exposure (to) what might come next,” Polis said.

Polis and lawmakers in the past year have committed to investing millions of dollars into helping students prepare for careers in in-demand fields — from their first years in school. That has included earmarking $26 million to help students improve their understanding of foundational math skills at a time less than a third of elementary and middle school students are meeting or exceeding grade level standards in math, according to an analysis of standardized test results by the nonpartisan Keystone Policy Center. 

An additional $25 million is supporting scholarships for high schoolers entering higher education and pursuing jobs in industries facing significant workforce shortages, giving them money to cover expenses for books, fees and tuition. And a separate $5 million is flowing to short-term nursing programs at community colleges to help build up nursing workforces at local hospitals.

CSU-Pueblo nursing student Fatema Afzali, center, performs chest compressions on a mannequin during a Code Blue training exercise at the univeristy July 7. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The state has also worked to dramatically reduce upfront higher education costs that often weigh down students with debt by paying tuition and covering fees, books and supplies for those starting training in a variety of industries that desperately need more workers — including early childhood education, nursing, construction, firefighting, law enforcement and forest management.

Polis highlighted the need to build a more robust workforce in Colorado’s energy sector as the state aims to be a national leader.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, left, speaks with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at the Unlocking Pathways Summit, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at the Community College of Aurora. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“That’s one of the areas that we seek to shine because when we’re meeting with major companies, and we’ve had several that have made commitments to grow in Colorado, their number one issue … is workforce,” Polis said.

The new grant program developed by the federal government will give schools and colleges another resource to expand the number of courses that award high schoolers college credit, invest in industry equipment while training students and pay for exams students have to take to secure credentials they need to jump into the workforce, Cardona said.

The federal support falls as more jobs that pay a living wage require more than a high school diploma, said Luke Rhine, deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education within the U.S. Department of Education.

“There are many paths to a good job, but a high school diploma is no longer sufficient for students to access the majority of jobs in their community,” Rhine said, “particularly good jobs.”

The grant program, which districts and colleges must apply for by the end of September, will position individual students for jobs that will come with stability and help communities adapt to the evolving needs of local employers, Rhine added.

“In many communities, high schools are a reflection of that community,” he said. “As we build up the capacity of high schools to respond to changing economic conditions, we are also in essence building the capacities of communities to do that exact same thing.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...