Have we prepared 2021 pandemic graduates?

Written By: Jacob Martinez
Executive Director Digital NEST

My son graduates high school this month and heads off to college in the fall. I’m both thrilled that he’s going to college, and concerned he’ll do well having spent the past year and a half in a virtual schooling environment.

Thirty percent of high school students in the Watsonville school district where I live are unprepared to graduate this year – a number normally 10%. When school counselors analyzed pre-COVID performance of students new to the group, they noticed they were getting average grades prior to the pandemic. It was easy to make the connection to COVID-related lapses in grades – whether students couldn’t get online, had to take care of loved ones, or didn’t learn well in a virtual environment. 

The counselors took their case to the school board and recommended they graduate all 30%. They made the case that Watsonville requires 220 credits to graduate and the state minimum is 130 credits. Watsonville students are well ahead of the state requirements as long as they make up their credits by the end of 2021. Counselors and district leaders know what’s at risk if these kids don’t receive a diploma. 

The poverty rate in Santa Cruz County where Watsonville is located is 14.7% – higher than the national average. COVID exacerbated circumstances for those already struggling economically. Without a diploma, low-income students are ineligible for financial aid for college. They’re also excluded from programs that support low-income students, such as Cabrillo College’s Promise program that provides free tuition for the first two years. Many Watsonville High School graduates attend Cabrillo and either finish their degree there or transfer to complete their education elsewhere. Either way, the program is a stepping stone to their success. But with the COVID learning gap, are graduates prepared for the transition to whatever stepping stone they choose? 

We can’t leave graduates alone to catch up on subjects where they fell behind, or know what kind of job to get in a pandemic. In normal circumstances, charting a life course takes investment in and support for every graduate. Why would we leave it to inexperienced youth to find their own way when their futures and the future of our communities depend on their success? This should be a collective concern. 

We must increase funding for career readiness in the school district. If allocated in the right way, students will be supported. Investments could be made in three areas. 

First, invest in school counselors. They’re overloaded in non-pandemic times and working at extremes during COVID. Funding could be used to hire more counselors and provide professional development that equips them to support both college-bound kids and those who may want to get jobs or go to vocational school. They’ll be better equipped to reach more students, especially those who have fallen behind because of COVID, to help them make important decisions about their futures.  

Second, fund a career development track in high schools to give schools the resources they need to create robust post-graduation programs. These programs would help students choose their paths – college, the workforce, a trade school or apprenticeship. Under close guidance, each senior would create a customized curriculum sampling different careers through internships, interviews with working professionals to explore while also networking their own bench of contacts.

Finally, the school district can only do so much. Investing in collaboration is necessary. The County’s Adult Education Program and community colleges must work closely with school districts to make sure kids complete their credits, participate in continuing education or receive workforce training. Businesses, nonprofits and community organizations must unite to provide real-world experiences via internships, mentoring and investments, and let students know they’re supported.

Federal, state and local funding plus private investment will create the critical support graduates need to transition and strengthen graduates’ ability to be informed and satisfied with their choices. Universities and colleges could follow suit and segue their graduates to bright futures. 

If we’re committed to helping graduates become a prepared and healthy workforce, we urgently need to create community support systems that include schools, businesses, nonprofits and funders.

If in one year we can mobilize a network of politicians, scientists, universities, and the military to invent a vaccine for a global pandemic, shouldn’t we be able to figure out how to support graduating students in our own communities?

Our graduates, our communities and our economy depend on it. 

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