Launch: Joining the National Career Pathways Conversation

“Career Pathways are a specific collection of courses and training opportunities which prepare a student for a chosen career.” – Washington State Board of Education

Angie Mason-Smith from Washington STEM and Rathi Sudhakara from Washington Student Achievement Council co-lead our state’s Launch team to develop a systemic plan to link graduates to careers offering a family sustaining wage.

When you want to change a habit, you have to step outside your old routine.

That was the intent when the organizers behind LAUNCH: Equitable & Accelerated Pathways for All, brought in some 100 educators and career pathway strategists from across the U.S. to meet in New Orleans last month.

Their goal? To break down the silos created by decades of patchworked funding and create clear, equitable pathways leading to family-sustaining careers for learners across the U.S.

Currently, there are unequal opportunities for Black and Latinx learners: too few are earning credentials of value. And while some may enroll in college or training programs, many don’t finish and they end of up with hard-to pay debt, further perpetuating economic inequality.

“As we turn the corner from the pandemic and economic downturn, it is a critical time to reflect on what has worked, boldly face and dismantle what is standing in the way of progress, and continue to innovate on next-generation solutions.”

To do this, five national education organizations worked with their funders to create a joint funding event and convened career pathways leaders in New Orleans. As stated by Launch organizers, “As we turn the corner from the pandemic and economic downturn, it is a critical time to reflect on what has worked, boldly face and dismantle what is standing in the way of progress, and continue to innovate on next-generation solutions.”

In our state, Career Connect Washington (CCW) is a leader in connecting high school graduates to sustainable career pathways. Washington STEM is part of CCW’s leadership team which is how Angie Mason-Smith, Washington STEM’s Senior Program Officer for Career Pathways, found herself in New Orleans last month, strategizing over coffee with other education leaders from this state— and occasionally and dusting powdered sugar from a beignet off her sweater.

“We are beyond excited to be a part of the work to increase equitable access to personalized pathways for each learner and celebrate the impact that it will have on our Tacoma and Washington State students with alignment across the nation.” Adam Kulaas, Director of Innovated Learning & CTE, Tacoma Public Schools

Together with state co-lead, Rathi Sudhakara, Assistant Director of Washington Student Achievement Council, Angie pulled together an Impact Cohort site team consisting of leaders from four districts across the state. These leaders include a school superintendent, a school board member, and a career technical education (CTE) director from each district.

Launch provides these local leaders with an opportunity to learn together and re-design career pathways as equitable and accessible for all. Altogether, these districts represent a microcosm of the state’s public schools: from large and urban (Tacoma), to medium and urban (Renton) to small and rural (Elma), to suburban and east of the mountains (Richland).

Angie said, “The team was chosen strategically—not just for their innovative leadership, but because with this kind of diversity, we can create pathways that work within any school district regardless of their size. And this will feed into policy and advocacy recommendations that will be appropriate for school districts across the state.”

Jill Oldson (second from right), Richland school board member, said, “We are excited to represent Richland and the state of Washington in the Launch project, working to ensure equitable access to high quality career pathways.”

Washington is a “local control state”, which means there is a lot of decision-making power placed on school boards or superintendents. When these leaders make decisions about which career pathways will be available for students in their districts, they often pull from their own experience—which may be different from the experiences of the students they serve.

Angie added, “We all got out of our normal routines, closed our laptops, and engaged with new conversations. It created a unique dynamic of shared experience to build trust, so we can discuss things that require us to dig deeper.”

The Launch project is divided into two cohorts: Impact and Innovation, each consisting of teams from seven states. Washington is in the Impact Cohort, along with teams from Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Tennessee. For the next two years, these teams will work through three stages: 1) needs assessment, 2) academies: where they identify and dismantle barriers, followed by 3) development of a strategic Plan.

Angie said the most exciting part of the trip was working with local leaders from across the state. “These are some incredibly busy people, so the fact that they were ready to roll up their sleeves and do this work as a team, shows their commitment to making a system that works for all their students.”

Learn more about this important work! Register for A Conversation on the Future of College and Career Pathways that will feature our national partners and fellow state leaders on March 15, 2023, 2 – 3:15 p.m. ET. Register here.

During the three-day conference, teams from across the country shared what was working in their states.