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During the pandemic, college enrollment significantly declined as young people across the country, confined to their homes, refused to dole out thousands of dollars for virtual courses. This happened amid an economic downturn and a growing fervor for student loan debt relief.
Meanwhile, District education officials, increasingly cognizant of the changing landscape, conducted meetings to determine how they could better meet students’ demands for experiential learning opportunities that expose them to lucrative, tech-based career options.
The finalized, but ever-evolving, products that came out of those discussions continue to build upon on-campus career academies that, for years, prepared public and public charter school students for their pursuit of a career in engineering, cybersecurity, hospitality, communications, or health care.
These new opportunities also come at a time when District public school students, teachers and community members have immersed themselves in a school redesign process that will lead to curriculum revamps and expansion of tech-based, project-based learning opportunities.
In November, Christa Cummings, a sophomore at Paul Public Charter School in Northwest, spoke to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), State Superintendent Christina Grant and other District officials about her experiences at the Advanced Technical Center (ATC).
Earlier this year, Bowser and Grant announced the launch of the ATC, through which high school students accumulate college credits when they take courses in nursing, health care IT, and cybersecurity.
Christa, a student-athlete who wants to pursue cybersecurity, counts among nearly 100 high school students from across the District who take daily college-level courses at the ATC, currently based on the campus of Trinity Washington University in Northeast.
Her participation in ATC followed her enrollment in an Amazon Web Services course.
Within the next few months, the ATC will have a new headquarters at Penn Center in Northeast. By that time, Christa and her peers would be well on their way to completing their coursework and getting 20 college credits under their belt.
Christa said such an outcome better positions her to fulfill her goal of acquiring certifications and attending college at a lower cost.
“I’m getting offered a free education, what’s better?” Christa said.
“You can go straight into cybersecurity with a certification,” she added.
“If I can get it for free and I expose myself to all that I have, I have experience which can get me booked. I want to go [to a college] where I can get the most money.”
The Advanced Internship Program: One Step Closer to One Man’s Vision
This academic year, several students who have adopted a similar mindset also enrolled in the Advanced Internship Program, also touted by the Bowser administration as an effort to connect District youth to college and career opportunities before they graduate high school.
In August, Bowser and Grant, along with officials at The George Washington University in Northwest, recognized Coolidge High School student Kiera Lucas, who interned with forensic scientists at GW. For the next round of internships, Bowser and Grant called on 300 District employers to serve as worksites for careers in communications, hospitality, business management, information technology, health sciences and architecture.
Numerous employers, including Charles Boston stepped up to the plate.
Since registering in the Advanced Internship Program as an employer, Boston, an engineer and proponent for trades-based education, has been able to teach dozens of high school students about the basics of arboriculture — the cultivation, management and study of trees, shrubs, and plants.
For his lessons, he takes his group of youths to various green spaces across the District, some of which are under federal jurisdiction.
Most recently, Boston and three students from H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast visited the U.S. Botanic Garden where the students watched Boston demonstrate his use of a chainsaw. Boston went further when he placed a harness around his waist and explained how he could climb large trees with several feet of rope.
Boston said these excursions often inspire dialogue about career fields that his young employees could enter without a college education. Other topics center on the changing demographics of the District and opportunities that young people can pursue amid an explosion in infrastructural development.
Such conversation isn’t new to Boston who, for years, has advocated for the expansion of trades-based education in District schools.
In 2020, Boston ran for the Ward 7 seat on the D.C. State Board of Education as a critic of the S.T.A.R. Framework, which he described as one of many tools pigeonholing students into academic pathways that don’t lead to in-demand trades and careers.
Boston ran his campaign on the premise that the District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment, the U.S. National Arboretum and other agencies and institutions could serve as educational partners to connect young people to hands-on, trades-based education.
In 2021, Boston continued along his path when he unsuccessfully proposed a ballot measure mandating the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to incorporate work-based learning opportunities in the citywide curriculum.
While he has since seen the District making an effort in that regard, Boston said that more should be done.
“From an environmental standpoint, the climate is an existential crisis,” Boston said. “Our young people should have an enriched education. The internship offers a lot to that pathway.”
Earlier this year, Anthony Smith, a senior at H.D. Woodson and one of Boston’s interns, hadn’t yet solidified his college plans. However, he said that learning about arboriculture sparked ideas about how to make an honest living upon graduating from high school.
Anthony, who also plays football, recounted having similar thoughts about his future while navigating Woodson’s engineering academy, one of D.C. Public Schools’ Career and Technical Education programs intended to provide learning-based work opportunities and prepare students for industry-recognized certification exams.
“[The schools] give us different courses [like] engineering and IT [and] internships and opportunities,” Anthony said.
“They don’t have what they used to have like barbering, but they introduce you to real stuff and college,” he added. “They have counselors and walk you through the whole process. They introduced us to it since [we were in] the ninth grade so we can get into it.”
Bennett Career Institute Tackles Misconceptions about Hair Care Industry
Pennsylvania native and entrepreneur Kareema Graham recently enrolled in Bennett Career Institute eager to expand her skill set as a hair care industry specialist.
Since the age of 11, Graham has had an affinity for doing hair. However, she took her mother’s advice and matriculated to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It didn’t take long before she dropped out of the four-year college and pursued nursing.
Graham also launched her own business, which allowed her to delve deeply into her passion for natural hair. At Bennett Career Institute, located on Monroe Street in Northeast, Graham takes barbering courses. She calls barbering another trick of the trade that can immediately garner her income and lead to career advancement.
For the millennial, getting on this path required embracing her own ideals about what qualified as a suitable education.
“In the African-American community, we feel that college is a must,” Graham said.
“When you have more than one trade, you can make money without doing anything. Having a license is a major accomplishment,” she added.
“You don’t have to go to college to be successful. It’s about your dedication. It’s not about school, but what your heart desires. It can be your trade or running your business.”
At this juncture in her career, Graham has looked to Chet Bennett, founder of Bennett Career Institute, as a mentor.
Bennett, an alumnus of Morehouse College in Atlanta and Howard University in Northwest, launched Bennett Career Institute in 1996 after a similar program he served at as an administrator shuttered. He launched this educational venture with the help of his mother and other family members.
Since opening its doors, Bennett Career Institute has expanded its offerings to barbering, cosmetology, esthetics, make-up artistry and hair braiding. On any given day, dozens upon dozens of students, most of whom are in their 20s, are taking deep dives into the complexities of their trade.
Not only do students learn their various trades, but they participate in lectures and workshops where they explore the scientific foundations of haircare and learn how to develop entrepreneurial ventures. Through Bennett, students have been able to run, and eventually own, one of the several District-based salons he owned upon their graduation.
Students at Bennett Career Institute, a federally-accredited institution, can access federal grants and loans to subsidize an education that costs between $18,000 and $22,000. This has especially been the case with the recent infusion of CARES Act funds.
While Bennett doesn’t discount college as a viable educational pathway, he acknowledges the misconceptions held by many about the hair care industry. As he often tells young people under his tutelage, working in a salon or barbershop requires more than standing up all day.
In the District, students have access to high-level clientele and exclusive events. That’s why Bennett remains adamant about expanding people’s understanding about what a positive attitude and proper planning can do for hair care specialists and entrepreneurs in the field.
“I sit down with the entire student body. We have shop talk,” Bennett said. “You have to give it to them raw. A lot of times, people don’t know the struggles of what we deal with [like] the way people think we’re wasting our time.”
UDC Further Engages District High School Students
University of District of Columbia (UDC) President Ronald Mason is expected to resign in the summer of 2023. Upon entering his role in 2015, he orchestrated the transformation of the local HBCU that had been widely considered among the least viable options for a college education in the District.
In 2016, UDC accepted its first cohort of DC-UP Presidential Scholars. These students, each of whom graduated at the top of their class in District public and public charter schools, accepted a full-ride scholarship at UDC which also included housing in one of the newly constructed on-campus dorms.
Since the launch of the DC-UP Presidential Scholarship, more than 260 District high school graduates have matriculated through the DC-UP Learning Community.
Meanwhile, UDC developed pathways through which students can acquire various certifications and degrees at their own pace. With the launch of UDC-Community College Bertie Backus Campus in Northeast and a workforce development center in Congress Heights in Southeast, District residents can pursue credentialing in nursing and information technology, among other fields.
At the height of the pandemic, when enrollment at District public and public charter schools, a prominent source pool for UDC, dropped, UDC officials explored new recruitment techniques while devoting resources to meet current students’ needs.
Dr. William Latham, chief student development and support officer at UDC, said that the university launched programming to help UDC students weather the storm of the pandemic. Students received counseling about how to stay in school.
An infusion of federal dollars also allowed UDC to support students dealing with various issues distracting them from their academic endeavors.
In their interactions with prospective students, Latham and other UDC officials tout the interpersonal aspect of their program. This school year, a team of admissions counselors and financial aid specialists have visited at least four District high schools.
During those visits, Latham promotes the relative affordability of a UDC education.
He also explains in great detail the changes the university has undergone over the last seven years. During campus visits, students tour newly renovated facilities and, if they choose to do so, purchase food and drinks from fast food franchises located along Connecticut Avenue in Northwest.
They will also get to learn more about the various levels of academic programming.
Since Mason took the helm, UDC has raised $2.3 million in needs-based scholarships.
Within that time, the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law also tied with Yale University in the ranking of its clinic. The university received 11 commendations in accreditation reaffirmation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and tripled its research expenditures. It also launched Ph.D. programs in Urban Leadership & Entrepreneurship and Computer Science & Engineering, along with the Katherine G. Johnson Mathematics Teacher Training Institute.
“UDC is equipped to take you from the workforce to Ph.D., from workforce to law degree,” Latham said.
“We don’t want you to feel differently. That’s the reality of the students we serve,” he added.
“That’s the culture we continue to build upon. It’s about a sense of responsibility and accountability and caring about students. That’s our competitive advantage.”
This article is part one of a National Association of Black Journalists-sponsored series exploring efforts that local government officials and educational institutions are making to expand high school students’ access to affordable, college and career options.