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Creating Wealth-Building Pathways for Youth through Career Academies

Two students are working together on a technical project

Sareen Keenan


Greater Twin Cities United Way envisions a united community where all people realize their full potential. Through targeted investments in household stability, educational success and economic opportunity, we foster a region where every person can thrive, regardless of income, race or place.

United Way launched Career Academies in 2015 to better prepare Minnesota students for in-demand, high-wage careers. Career Academies partners with 16 school districts across the state (urban and rural) to build equity-centered grade 9-12 career pathways, ensuring students have access to college credits, rigorous and relevant curriculum, and meaningful and supportive work experiences. Our initiative is centered on building pathways to zero college debt and $25-per-hour jobs.

To build sustainable change, we ensure that the bold goals we set for Career Academies are centered on Students of Color and low-income students. Our evaluation shows that of the 10,000+ students enrolled in Career Academies since 2015, 49 percent were Students of Color, far exceeding the statewide average for participation in concurrent enrollment programs.

Career Academies is one of United Way’s innovation initiatives, which focus on pressing areas of unmet need revealed through our partnerships. These initiatives generate fresh approaches through listening, co-creating, testing and amplifying strategies that drive results. We believe strategic investments — narrow in focus but great in scale — will catalyze sustainable, systemic impact.

Building an Inclusive and Equitable Economy

In a recent Community Connections Series event, we heard from national and local experts on the impact of highly rigorous, career-connected learning opportunities for youth. Deon Clark of TCI Solutions shared his own story on how a career path within the armed services allowed him to harness his talents and become a national nuclear energy expert, building wealth for himself and his family.

Dr. Kyle Hartung from JFF discussed the role intermediaries play in advancing equitable systems change. Much like the work United Way is leading in the Twin Cities, JFF amplifies and focuses on equitable outcomes for historically marginalized communities. As United Way aligns our Career Academies efforts to build an inclusive economy, it is essential that we center our efforts on the existing excellence of young people.

Dr. Joe Gothard of St. Paul Public Schools shared the amazing innovation that is underway there, including pre-K through high school career planning; four Career Pathway centers in every high school, in partnership with AchieveMpls; and their comprehensive strategic plan for student achievement.

Dr. Gothard also illuminated the tremendous disruption that our school systems, teachers and families are feeling this year. For St. Paul, this included a teacher strike, the murder of George Floyd, the death of their school board chair, the COVID-19 pandemic and full distance learning for students. Through all of this, St. Paul Public Schools has remained focused on ensuring that all young people have access to high quality educational opportunities with career connected learning opportunities.

Leveraging Disruption to Drive Innovation

During this time of significant disruption, we have seen our Career Academies partners support their teachers and students in driving innovation – and in some cases, leveraging the disruption as a point of innovation.

An outstanding example is the leadership of youth in the Career Academies Summer Stabilization Fund, where youth in St. Louis Park researched if all students have access to grade-level standards and quality instruction. Their recommendations include hiring more Teachers of Color, allowing youth to run professional development for teachers, and systems to connect with families to ensure that both teachers and families are supporting youth to enroll and succeed in advanced coursework. This Youth Participatory Action Research project highlights what is possible when we put young people in the position of power. In this case, they acted as educational consultants to the school district and the school board was astounded.

At the heart of United Way’s Career Academies initiative is creating wealth-building pathways that allow students to pursue a career they are passionate about, with zero college debt and access to $25-per-hour jobs.

About the Author

Sareen Keenan is a Senior Manager of Government and Institutional Relations. This is a restricted portfolio of work that focuses on wealth-building for individuals in the community. Prior to joining United Way, Sareen led career and technical education work at MCTC. She also founded Heartwood Montessori, a nonprofit early childhood center focused on equitable access to quality childcare and livable wage jobs for employees. Sareen holds a master’s degree in educational administration and undergraduate degrees in the sciences.

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