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Centering Youth Voice and Equity in Education through Career Academies

A group of students are sitting together and the middle student is raising her hand

Liz Williams


As summer winds down, we can’t help but reflect on the past year in education. There has been no uniform experience for students during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the common narrative for all youth is that it has been a lost year. Data from across the country shows the opportunity gap that existed before the pandemic has worsened for Black, Indigenous and Students of Color. At the same time, among our Career Academies partners, we have seen innovation, resiliency, agility and inspiration to guide us in the upcoming school year.

It has not been a lost year because in a difficult year, students still experienced the world in all its complexity and even led a movement for racial equity in our community with impact around the world. The pandemic raged on while students became business owners, certified nursing assistants and graduates. School districts facilitated many of these opportunities through innovative approaches even in the face of immense challenge and less than ideal circumstances.

Career Academies is a Greater Twin Cities United Way innovation initiative that partners with local schools and businesses to prepare Minnesota students for in-demand, high-wage careers and zero college debt. Over the past year, along with our Career Academies partners, we have identified inspirational guiding principles to approach a new, uncertain school year – principles that are centered on equity, student experience and wealth-building.

Principles for Change: Centering Youth Voice in Education Decisions

It is not easy, but we have seen teachers, students and districts embrace change and disruption. We know the pandemic is not over, and the ripple effects will be evident for years to come. The most sustainable and transformational change is growing in places where folks are leaning into the disruption and using the opportunity to change whatever was not working for students.

We also have seen a significant shift to honor and center young people in educational decisions. The most transformational change happens when adults adjust the systems intended to support students based on actual feedback and authentic partnership with youth. Young people are designing and envisioning for the better – as adults, it is our charge to amplify their voices at the tables where we sit.

Lastly, as our Career Academies partners know so well, each student is unique. Districts that are designing with future-oriented vision know that developing career pathways is a culturally responsive, equitable approach to education. Aligning a student's individual values, strengths and passions to a future pathway is core to the design.

A Focus on Equity: St. Paul Public Schools

The embodiment of these principles can be found in many of our Career Academies Community of Practice members, including Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS). Amid so much disruption, SPPS forged ahead with financial and technical support from United Way. They continued building out their vision for district-wide pathways that provide students with opportunities to earn college credit, engage in paid meaningful work experience, and aligned, rigorous coursework. SPPS works toward systemic equity, and their career pathways are one tool toward realizing that vision.

SPPS created a Community Justice and Education Pathway with support from United Way to increase the number of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Teachers of Color in the state – a proven equitable practice that improves outcomes and engagement for all students. Through listening and adapting to what students were asking for, which included culturally specific coursework, the Community Justice and Education Pathway reflects that for many young people the reason for entering the teaching field is to support and engage their communities as changemakers and leaders.

Last summer, United Way also supported SPPS to start a new program called “Earn as You Learn” that remotely engaged students, paid them and created an opportunity for pathways-aligned certifications. This program has continued beyond the initial funding and has generated hundreds of opportunities for young people. It continues to be a blueprint for youth employment that other districts look to for inspiration.

Despite so much challenge and disruption, across our Career Academies Community of Practice, students, teachers and districts continue to learn, grow and progress. By embracing change and incorporating student voice and equity into education decisions, our Career Academies partners are showing a new way forward – and working to ensure that high-quality educational opportunities are available to all students regardless of place, race, or income.

About the Author

Liz Williams is a Senior Program Officer for Career Academies, collaborating with school districts and partners to reimagine school systems as a lever for community wealth building. She has taught and worked in both urban and rural communities in New Mexico and Minnesota and is a licensed teacher. She received her Bachelor of Arts from University of Minnesota and her Master of Education Policy and Management from Harvard.

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