My 16-year-old son, Eli, came into my bedroom the other night to share a story that was upsetting him. He had been on the phone with Everett, one of his closest friends. They were talking about marketing strategies for Eli’s streetwear business. At some point, Eli paused and asked Everett, “What do you plan to do for a career in the future?” Everett replied, “I have no idea.” And then followed with, “Maybe I’ll just continue to work with my uncle.” Eli knew that was a fallback option, and not one driven by a sense of purpose or passion.
For Eli, a kid fortunate enough to inherently have a true sense of purpose and passion, Everett’s comments saddened him. The fact is, the vast majority of young people go through school without a sense of purpose. Our school system does not foster it. The majority of schools and districts remain compliance-focused and attend narrowly to the flawed set of outcomes represented by our state’s accountability system, like test scores, attendance rates, suspensions, etc.
Fortunately, there are exceptions. In California, we have many examples of innovative teachers, schools, and even entire districts that are fostering student purpose exceptionally well. The problem is, these examples sit as islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity.
In Cajon Valley Union School District, their vision is “Happy kids, in healthy relationships, on a path to gainful employment.” The vision is unusual in two ways: First, it’s rare for a K-8 district to focus on employment, and second, it says nothing about academic achievement. Yet, it’s truly visionary because it makes a calculated assumption that, if kids find joy at school and in learning, if they feel a sense of belonging and trust from being in healthy relationships with peers and adults, and if they know themselves well enough to have a purpose and direction for their futures, then they will learn. The vision includes an understanding of psychology and treats students as humans, rather than as parts on an assembly line. Best of all, in Cajon Valley, from Superintendent David Miyashiro on down, they live their vision every day.
At the district’s Bostonia Global high school, students are in advisory with a known and trusted adult for a full eight hours per week, including time at the beginning and end of every day. There, they not only build strong and trusting relationships with their adviser and peers, but also have a forum for exploring their identities, working through social-emotional challenges, setting goals, pursuing their college and career interests, and making plans for the future. Their “classes” are more like workshops with extended periods of time to delve into projects based on their interests and/or in service to their school and community. They feel like learning is relevant and purposeful. For that reason, they show up.
Through their World of Work program, kids come to know their strengths, interests and values. Through their TEDxKids@ElCajon program, students have freedom to pursue and articulate their passion.
In Anaheim Union High School District, Superintendent Mike Matsuda and his team have developed the Career Preparedness Systems Framework that blends three driving forces: giving students voice and purpose; promoting a set of durable skills, called the “5Cs” — collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and compassion; and teaching students technical skills needed to succeed in the world of work. Students see relevance in many ways. They participate in career pathways aligned to their interests. They pursue projects of personal value and in service to their community. In doing so, about 2,000 AUHSD students per year earn the state’s Seal of Civic Engagement.
In Porterville Unified School District, about 4 of 5 high school students opt to participate in one of 14 open-access “linked learning” pathways across multiple fields, including engineering, hospitality, law and justice, multimedia, environmental science, agriculture, business and finance, and health. Through these pathways, students pursue their interests by doing interdisciplinary projects, participating in internships, running student enterprises and connecting with industry mentors. One of the district’s partners, Climate Action Pathways for Schools, engages students in internships to support the district’s many grants to reduce greenhouse gases (HVAC systems, solar energy, electric buses and more).
It’s no surprise that all three districts are seeing tremendous results. While pursuing distinct approaches, all are organized to foster students’ curiosity, exploration and pathway interests. They honor students’ identities, cultures and languages. They nurture trusting relationships and a sense of belonging. And, they give students a voice in what they learn, a choice in how they learn and demonstrate their competency, and agency to take ownership over their learning journey.
In education, it’s unjust for some students to have access to learning opportunities like these, while others do not; our commitment to equity must be systemic. While some students, like my son Eli, will create their own path driven by their own sense of purpose, we should not assume that all young people have the inclination, capacity and support to do so. Until we shift to a system that is increasingly student-centered, equitable, and competency-based, too many students will lack purpose. In turn, that lack of purpose will continue to feed chronic absenteeism, flat test scores and other challenges that ail the education system.
Ultimately, as educators and society, we have become complicit — valuing what we measure, rather than measuring what we value. Let’s change that.
Roman Stearns is the executive director of Scaling Student Success, a California partnership dedicated to educating the whole child.
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