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Giving Credit where Credit is Due

"We thought the added bonus would hook them - and it did." - Nancy Carter

Students in Denver Public Schools Summer Youth Program had two good reasons for staying in their four week, six-hour-a-day academic enrichment program: the promise of a summer job at the end of the class and the reward of one semester elective credit to apply towards graduation.

Nancy Carter, Director of the Southwest Community School and Coordinator of the summer program, championed the plan for granting students academic credit:

"There are too many compelling reasons for young people not to stay in the program, such as negative social behaviors, gangs and drugs," she explained. "We wanted to balance this and encourage them to look ahead at requirements for graduation. We thought this added bonus would hook them-especially those going into the junior and senior year, and in need of extra credit-and it did. "

The possibility of picking up extra credit turned out to be an effective incentive for the young people in the program. Attendance was up significantly over previous years, and more than one half of the 678 participants qualified for the credit, a remarkable number when considering the stringent requirements they had to meet.

Convincing the District

Knowing that the Denver Public School District was not going to easily grant credit for a summer program, Nancy and her staff developed a syllabus that would include the SCANS competencies. "The district needed to see clearly what the demonstrated outcomes were, and how we were going to measure them," she told us, "We were going to have to be real specific about what we anticipated the students would learn, and show that we would be able to complete everything within the time given."

There were still challenges along the way, but Nancy was determined to accomplish her goal of making credit a possibility for every student. "The Curriculum Director has authority to approve and disapprove credit, and in our district, she takes her job very seriously," she told us. "Initially, she was hesitant to approve credit, so it was our task to assure her that any credit given for the summer program would be held to the same criteria as year-long programs.

"Our decision to use Career Choices really helped us gain her approval. She could tell right away that we had carefully thought out and structured a complete program based on a specific set of curriculum materials."

Fulfilling Requirements for Credit

Standards set by the Denver Public Schools required each student to complete a minimum of 76 hours "seat time," meaning they couldn't miss even one day of the 19 day program. To keep the requirement from being too steep, students were still eligible for a summer job if they had no more than two absences, but academic credit depended first of all upon attendance every day.

In addition to the attendance requirement, teachers filled out a checklist for each student which was aligned with the SCANS competencies. Students had to demonstrate proficiency in at least half of the 43 competencies, which required evidence of many types of pre-employment maturity skills, including decision making, interviewing, personal appearance, and knowledge of job options.

In order to satisfy those competencies, students spent 70% of their time using the Career Choices materials. Based on the success of last year's program using the same curriculum, Nancy reported: "We all agreed that Career Choices was a successful springboard to stimulate students to really take a good hard look at their current situation, in terms of budget, job options, and then to dream, think or plan about where they wanted to be in the future. It was this combination of the philosophical and the pragmatic that was so valuable in the curriculum."

Working in teams, teachers used exercises and activities from Career Choices and supplemented them with their own materials. "One teacher was a realtor, so he had students work on what it would take to qualify for a loan to get a house or a car," Nancy reports. "The exercises in Chapter 4 of Career Choices helped students see what kind of a lifestyle to aim for and what kind of financial support it would take to get it."

Each student's work was gathered into a portfolio which contained not only the completed checklist and attendance sheets, but a computer-generated resume, an autobiography demonstrating writing skills, and certain math worksheets from the Career Choices Workbook and Portfolio. Other pages from the Workbook were also included, on such topics as envisioning your future, components of a lifestyle, identifying your passions, choice of work setting, vocabulary lists and, in some classes, a 10-year plan for the future.

In order to evaluate the portfolios, Nancy explains, teachers worked in teams to make sure each student had completed all the classwork that was necessary. When they were done, Nancy went back through the portfolios one last time to double check that each student had met all the criteria for accreditation.

In spite of bottom-line accreditation requirements in the classroom, some sites provided extracurricular programs for their students. One had a Career Day during which guests from the community came in and talked to students about employability skills, grooming, and different career options. Another held a Community Service day in which students went to work for Habitat for Humanity, building houses. "The kids responded very well, and we'll definitely repeat both of those activities next year," Nancy said.

External Evaluator Confirms Outcomes

Since the program was a repeat from last year, Nancy wanted to submit it to an external evaluation by Dr. Charles Branch, head of the Teaching Excellence Program at Metropolitan State College. In his report, Dr. Branch confirmed the positive outcomes by pointing to the increase in basic skills: For reading levels, 69% raised scores between 1 and 2.9 grade levels, 19% raised theirs between 3 to 4.9 grade levels, 8% between 5 and 6.9 grade levels, 3% between 7 and 8.9 grade levels, and 1% between 9 and 10.9 grade levels.

Personal growth and increased social/employability skills were also assessed by reviewing a sample of student portfolios and holding exit interviews of 133 students. The results were that 92% reported what they learned in the class would help them to get a job, 78% said they could get along better with people, 66% liked themselves better, 84% felt they were more responsible, 83% more independent and 74% felt they trusted themselves more. Overall, the percentages were up from last year, and Dr. Branch noted that significantly fewer students dropped out over the summer.

In conclusion, Dr. Branch states: "Both the staff and the Career Choices curriculum made learning come alive and have meaning for the majority of the participants. The program connected basic skills to careers, which focused the teaching and learning activities and gave participants a valid reason for learning. I highly recommend the continued use of the Career Choices curriculum."

Would Nancy Carter use Career Choices in the coming year, even though many of the students would be repeating the course? "Very definitely," she responded. "The curriculum is flexible enough to use differently, and each new group of teachers brings in such individual skills and interests - it's new every year."

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