NORWALK, Conn. — Out of the last four high school classes to graduate from Norwalk, 38 percent of graduates did not enroll in a post-secondary institution immediately after graduation. That’s more than 1200 students, of which 76 percent are students of color.
Those data points, presented by Norwalk ACTS on Friday, were some of the main drivers behind a new Workforce Development Coalition. Norwalk ACTS, a nonprofit that develops community partnerships to help the needs of Norwalk Public School students, is spearheading the effort which aims to “build a commitment from Norwalk businesses to work closely with education leaders and institutions in order to improve the educational outcomes and career prospects of the city’s high school and community college graduates.”
“For a long time, we’ve focused on those little ones at the bottom of the scale,” Jennifer Barahona, CEO of Norwalk Acts, said. “And so for us to really be launching today, the workforce and college readiness piece is very exciting. We are committed here at Norwalk acts of building safe, equitable, successful pathways for each and every child in Norwalk.”
With its partners, Norwalk Public Schools, Norwalk Community College and its foundation, the Greater Norwalk Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, Norwalk ACTS brought together more than 100 people virtually from across industries to begin assessing how schools could better support the students who had not been enrolling in further education and how businesses could partner with the schools to give students opportunities.
“How are we ensuring that these students have the skills, credentials, certifications that are valuable to an employer in our area?” Jesse Buccolo, manager of policy, strategy, & continuous improvement at Norwalk ACTS, said.
He noted that there’s already a strong existing bond between Norwalk Public Schools and Norwalk Community College that could be strengthened.
“How can we strengthen and innovate opportunities for these students?” he said. “It’s also important to note that for students who do enroll into post-secondary institutions, there are deep disparities in post-secondary persistence and completion amongst students from low-income families and students of color. We know that students need some form of post-secondary credential or certification to meet the job demands of current and future jobs.”
One of the ways to start doing this is to list out the skills that employers need to help students gain them.
“Many of our students need to demonstrate a high level of problem solving, critical thinking, social emotional learning, and collaborative skills,” Buccolo said. “Many more of our students need to successfully complete college and high school programs. Many more of our students need to engage in well-structured, work-based learning experiences, and many more of our students need to earn an industry specific credential and certification.”
Mayor Harry Rilling said that these public-private partnerships are important to helping students who graduate from high school find success.
“This is such an important endeavor, where we can find ways that help young people when they graduate from high school, to be ready to go out into the world to either a secondary education or going into the job market,” he said.
Superintendent of Norwalk Public Schools Alexandra Estrella said that the district proposed a career and technical in their capital plans to help provide an avenue for students to gain industry skills and get prepared for college.
“The idea with this work is not to create a pathway that is less rigorous, but actually a more enriched and rigorous pathway that affords students the opportunity that if they wish to go to college, they have an option,” she said. “We’re looking to also utilize the current industry within Norwalk to facilitate some of this work because what we want to do is enrich the industries that are currently in place within our communities, so that we can utilize them to support our students but also assemble pathways that will provide job opportunities.”
The coalition also provided an already existing example in Norwalk of how the schools and industries can work together — P-TECH High School. The school started as an academy within Norwalk High School in 2014, with about 60 students, and has grown since to become its own high school, thanks in part to IBM its industry partner and Norwalk Community College, its secondary education partner.
“The goal obviously was to create this three-prong approach that would lead to college degree attainment, as well as workforce readiness and entry into a high paying job at the end of the students experience,” Karen Amaker, P-TECH principal, said.
Tom Duffy, the chief of computer science at NCC, said that they focus on providing their students with “new collar” jobs, particularly in emerging technology fields, such as cybersecurity, design, data science, and mobile development.
Norwalk ACTS plans to hold quarterly meetings as a part of the Workforce Development Coalition to build “collective partnerships” with businesses that can benefit both the students and the companies. At this first meeting, leaders from industries, such as health care and IT, broke out into groups to discuss what skills are needed in their fields.
“In Norwalk, there are pockets of partnerships between businesses and schools,” Buccolo said. “But these partnerships are at a micro level, which causes concerns for sustainability and alignment. We are here today because we need system-level improvement to align and ensure our workforce development efforts reach all students from cradle to career. Our vision is for all young people in Norwalk to graduate high school prepared for post-secondary education, and a career.”