In 2020, JPMorgan Chase & Co. launched the New Skills ready network across six U.S. sites to improve student completion of high-quality career pathways with a focus on collaboration and equity. As a national partner in the New Skills ready network, Advance CTE strives to elevate the role of state capacity and resources in advancing project priorities and gain a unique perspective on promising practices to strengthen state-local partnerships across the country.
This blog series highlights innovative tools and initiatives produced across the six sites that advance the initiative’s four key priorities and serve as a guide for state leaders in their work to create cohesive, flexible and responsive career pathways.
Policy Associate Dan Hinderliter interviewed Donna Marbury, Director of Client Services for Warhol and WALL ST, a full-service marketing firm that serves as a consultant for the Columbus New Skills ready network site and has partnered on multiple initiatives with Columbus City Schools. This post will highlight the site’s work in elevating learner voice to market career pathways to families.
Career pathways in Columbus City Schools provide the opportunity for high school learners to access high quality career technical education, and are open to all juniors and seniors. Dozens of courses are offered through eleven pathway programs split between two locations, Columbus Downtown High School and Fort Hayes Career Center. Through the New Skills ready network, the Columbus project team is prioritizing improving rigor and quality specifically in the areas of health sciences and information technology. Postsecondary partners Columbus State Community College and The Ohio State University are also reviewing quality pathways in this area to ensure seamless transition and alignment for learners in and between educational institutions.
Purpose and Components
One of Columbus’ project focuses is creating messaging and materials to more effectively communicate the opportunities and benefits of career pathways to learners and families. The strategy focused on direct outreach to students and families through polling, focus groups and co-design sessions. Marbury emphasized that this strategy is rooted in creating communications “not for, but with the end user” to ensure materials meet both learners’ and families’ needs in how they digest and receive information.
This engagement began with focus groups of families and learners in the eighth and tenth grades, both those who are interested in and not interested in participating in career pathways in Columbus City Schools. Focus groups were also held with administrators, counselors and internship coordinators who were identified as key “translators” between student needs and goals and family perceptions and expectations for their students
Marbury acknowledged that it was difficult to reach families due to work schedules, communication needs, and the challenges of connecting virtually, and as a result, a post-focus group survey was targeted specifically to parents to determine communication preferences to better align future engagement.
Active Listening through Learner Feedback Loops
Columbus’ strategy integrates learner input beyond one-time focus groups, and Marbury emphasized that it is clear through their work so far that learners want to be involved in the entire process. Design workshops were held to allow a sub-set of learners involved in the focus groups to provide feedback on initial drafts of graphics and messaging. Future quarterly check-ins will engage this group in testing subsequent versions of the messaging and materials.
Learner feedback on the updated materials has helped to reach diverse groups of students and achieve authenticity through messaging that is easily understood and able to be easily acted upon; photography that aligns with East African and Latinx representation in Columbus communities, and in formats such as memes and videos that match popular means for learners to access information.
“Learners want to be involved in these projects. If they are interested in a career pathway, they want to feel empowered to talk about it, and we need to make it easy for them to do so.” – Donna Marbury, Director of Client Services, Warhol and WALL St.
The updated communication tools are one piece of a larger plan to design and communicate career pathways more clearly to families and learners so that each learner’s academic plans are aligned to their career goals starting as early as middle school.
Marbury elevated that the choice to participate in a career pathway in Columbus can be an emotional decision because it often requires the learner to leave their home school environment to attend one of Columbus’ career technical high schools. The communications to students and families must address this and highlight the benefits to students now and in the future. She also shared that the opportunity for hands-on learning experiences and the involvement of pathway alumni, particularly those from historically underrepresented populations, strongly resonated with learners. Finally, she emphasized the importance of involving learners and families at not just the beginning but across the entire project cycle of materials development to ensure the end product reflects the needs of the targeted audience.
For more information about initiatives being pursued by Columbus and the five other sites that are part of the New Skills ready network, view Advance CTE’s Year One snapshots. Additionally, Advance CTE’s recently released learner voice toolkit provides actionable resources, guidance and tools to ensure CTE learner voices are elevated and heard for the improvement of CTE policies and practices
Stacy Whitehouse, Senior Associate Communications and State Engagement