How high school pathway programs help students get on the right track

These college- and career-focused pathway programs are inspiring students and debunking outdated stereotypes about vocational education.

Mark Toner | June 14, 2021

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This isn’t a 1950s home economics class. With its gleaming, stainless-steel countertops and professional-grade stove, this state-of-the-art teaching kitchen could easily be at a top culinary school. Instead, the kitchen is at Brooklyn STEAM Center, where high schoolers are training in the culinary arts as part of the school’s pathway program. Graduating students will earn a New York City food handler’s license, a nationally recognized culinary arts certification, and college credit waivers at more than 40 affiliated colleges and universities.

“A lot of students come in with skills from cooking at home,” says Culinary Arts Instructor Shelly Flash. Being a former TV cooking show contestant wins her extra points with her students, she says. The school’s culinary and hospitality management program, Flash explains, helps students build on their home-made skills with professional training, which sets them on a path toward career or college.

Career pathway programs like the one offered at Brooklyn STEAM, which also has pathways in computer science and information technology, construction technology, design and engineering, and film and media, are transforming old stereotypes about vocational and career education once considered to be reserved for students who weren’t capable of academic success. But modern pathway programs offer inspiration and learning for all. “That stigma still exists,” says Principal Kayon Pryce, who as a child was labeled as a special needs student and shunted into low-skill vocational programs. “But the only true way to be college- and career-ready,” he explains, is to be exposed “to your passion and aspirations.”

A solid foundation of academics and professional training

High school pathway programs combine academics with exposure to careers ranging from engineering and biotech to performing arts and public service. The goal of these programs is to give high school students an early opportunity to explore talents and gain experience that will set them on a path to fulfilling college majors and careers.

Good high school pathway programs combine strong academics with job training for locally in-demand careers.

Despite the hands-on focus, professional pathways are vastly different from past vocational programs, which often were associated with remedial academic programs that didn’t lead to college. Modern pathways “allow for change and don’t have dead ends,” says Stephen Hamilton, a Cornell University professor emeritus and author of Career Pathways for All Youth: Lessons from the School-to-Work Movement.

The hope is to open up a world of possibilities to students as they are standing on the brink of their adult future. Some take their pathway training as a way to directly enter the profession they trained in during high school. Others might apply their course credit toward higher education.

The different paths of high school pathways

Pathways are sometimes offered in a school-within-a-school program, also called “career academies.” Or they are given as a part-day or full-day program at a high school that specializes in a given pathway. Juniors at Brooklyn STEAM, for example, spend half of their day at their home school, where they take the required core academic subjects like math, English, and social studies. Then they spend the other half either at the Brooklyn STEAM campus or at a place of business, devoting several hours to their chosen field.

Students typically choose from several career-focused pathways offered by their school or district. Along with their core classes, they take sequential classes in that pathway over two or more years of high school. Successful completion of a pathway often leads to an industry certification or college credit in a major or program that is part of that pathway. For example, a student in an aerospace engineering program might use what they learned toward certification as an aviation mechanic. Or they might receive college credit that goes toward earning a major in engineering.

How pathways create possibilities

Advocates of pathway programs say that the in-depth introduction to a career or college major helps students make better decisions about their future direction before they graduate from high school. Since most pathways include time in employer settings, job shadowing, or internship opportunities, they also provide broader workplace experiences. This on-site work experience is invaluable for today’s high school students. Given that the number of students who have had work experience before graduating has fallen by half over the past 20 years, students without on-the-job experience “are at a disadvantage,” says Hamilton.

Pathways also give students the opportunity to realize that a field they were interested in might not be a good fit. “Students come to us and realize they hate being on their feet and cutting tomatoes,” Pryce says. “That’s okay. We want them to figure that out with us before spending thousands of dollars on culinary school.”

What to look for in a good pathway program

Good program selection

Most high schools with pathways offer them in a handful of fields, often based on careers that are in demand by local employers. But without learning what students are interested in, “the kids aren’t going to be interested,” says Tom Aberli, principal of Atherton High School in Louisville, KT. Atherton staff conducted a survey of their students to help find out what pathways to offer. Their research paid off. Atherton’s academic performance and enrollment grew substantially in 2018 after offering pathways in engineering, health science, and media arts.

Qualified instructors

Important for highly technical fields of study, this can be especially challenging in high-tech fields that command significantly higher salaries than teaching. But many successful programs have attracted top-notch instructors in fields ranging from engineering to medical technology.

Specialized facilities or equipment

Pathway programs typically need more than standard classroom space. Brooklyn STEAM, for example, has professional-quality video and audio equipment for their Film and Media program. Atherton High School invested $1 million to renovate an auditorium into two medical classrooms outfitted with all of the appropriate equipment for its health science pathway.

Industry engagement

Partnerships with businesses in related fields help pathways provide career-focused experiences and opportunities to learn in real-world settings, such as a local airport’s hangar space used by Atherton’s aerospace engineering program. Business connections also ensure that what’s being taught meets changing real-world needs. “We’ve had situations where our industry advisory board told us a new coding language has hit the market and is here to stay,” says Brooklyn STEAM’s Pryce. “Being able to bring in partners to co-design and co-teach that content while upskilling the instructor is what [keeps] programs relevant and viable.”

Many pathway programs have formal industry advisory councils that help shape programs. But at a minimum, a good pathway program should require “regular, formal means of communication about what the employer needs are,” Hamilton says.

Academic rigor

Look for programs that include traditional subjects like math and science so students get the academic basics needed to do well in their pathway courses. Unlike “old-school” vocational education programs that funneled low-performing students out of college-prep courses, pathways should give students the option to take rigorous academic courses. At Atherton, pathway students can take demanding IB courses. “From the beginning, we set out to [not] lower the standards,” Aberli says. Good programs will also teach a range of “soft skills.” While educators often treat soft skills like teamwork and communication as secondary, they actually are found at the top of many job requirements. “Conventional classrooms don’t teach collaboration really well,” says Hamilton, who notes that learning together and from another is a valuable feature of a strong pathway program.

College and career options

Pathways should provide students with options that lead to specific college majors, postsecondary career training, or employment directly out of high school. Health-focused pathways, for example, could expose students to pre-med majors in college, as well as programs such as emergency medical technicians (EMT) that don’t require a college degree.

Workforce credentials and articulation agreements

Pathways that provide students with formal workplace credentials such as IT or OSHA safety certifications can help them land jobs right out of high school. In many cases, colleges and technical schools will reward selected pathway courses with college credit, especially if programs have formal articulation agreements with selected institutions.

How to make pathways a success

For parents

Don’t select programs for your teen. While it’s tempting to steer students toward well-paying careers, “That’s not the way a kid develops a passion,” says Aberli. “I want kids being really excited about their field of study.” It’s also important to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes about career-focused programs — whether students are planning to attend college or not. “That distinction isn’t good for kids or parents,” Hamilton says.

For educators

Look for opportunities to connect academic work to pathway programs, particularly in classes with large numbers of students from one pathway. For example, a geometry teacher with a large number of engineering pathway students could create a curriculum that includes hands-on projects that focus on engineering problems.

For administrators

Look at existing talent when starting hard-to-staff programs. At Atherton High School, pathways were staffed by teachers with past work experience or previous training or coursework they could build on, including a business teacher who had previously worked as an engineer. “We had a lot of internal talent,” says Alberli. “But we hadn’t fostered it before.” Also, along with local business partners, consider tapping alumni working in pathway fields for input on the impact and design of programs


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Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a freelance education writer based in Washington, D.C.