George Lucas Educational Foundation
Career & Technical Education

Tapping Into Community Connections to Improve CTE

When career and technical education teachers partner with local industry leaders, students gain valuable contacts and experience.

March 14, 2024
monkeybusinessimages / iStock

We all know how valuable authentic learning experiences are, no matter your age. But let’s be honest, sometimes it’s tricky to move from theory to practice. That’s where community connections come into play. They’re invaluable for educators, making real-world learning more accessible and engaging for everyone.

Now, let’s get right to the “how.”

Start by crafting a community asset map, which should include connections within your local community, such as relationships with local businesses, higher ed partners, nonprofit organizations, and key community leaders. As you brainstorm assets, think about your career and technical education (CTE) course and what connections might support your students and your curriculum.

Once you’ve exhausted your own ideas, reach out to others to expand your network. You can organize a gallery walk with colleagues or reach out individually to friends, family, students, and others. Here are some questions to consider: How can you keep this asset map dynamic and updated? How might you make it visible?

Next, take a moment to think about an upcoming unit of study or project that could benefit from a community connection. As you brainstorm, craft a design question using this format: How might we design [unit/project] with a community connection to achieve [intended outcome]?

Using your design question and your community asset map, (re)design your upcoming unit or project with a community connection pulled from the Community Connections Heat Index. The heat index is broken into three sections, mild, medium, and spicy, as outlined below:

3 Levels of Community CTE Support

1. Mild: Easy-entry projects. The mild section offers some easy entry points for educators that can really enhance learning experiences. Whether you’re engaging with virtual speakers or hearing from local experts in person, guest speakers can share their real-world experiences, providing students with explicit connections to course content.

And field trips? They’re not just about wandering around; they’re an avenue to explore careers and dive deeper into project work. Take, for example, visiting a local garage to see oil changes in action—suddenly, automotive concepts do not seem so abstract.

Then, there are student-led interviews and workshops run by experts. Chatting with and learning from professionals is not just about gathering information; it’s about empathy and gaining a deeper understanding of their work. Finally, project opportunities within the school community provide the chance to turn textbook concepts and simulations into real work, making learning more “sticky.”

2. Medium: Slightly more advanced projects. In the medium section, there are community connection opportunities for educators ready to turn up the spice level a notch. By tapping into the expertise of community partners through feedback panels and one-on-one sessions, these invaluable opportunities help students fine-tune their work to meet industry standards.

Job shadows take students straight into the heart of professional environments, giving them a firsthand taste of different careers. And mentors, whether they are college students or other community members, act like a student’s personal guide, helping them navigate projects and capstone work. Plus, collaborating on projects with district partners provides students a taste of real-world work that goes beyond the four walls of the classroom.

3. Spicy: Bring on the heavy lift. Now, let’s dive into the spicy section of the heat index. First, there are exhibitions of learning—this culminating event is where students shine by showing off what they have learned with an authentic audience. Then there’s work-based learning where students are not just sitting in class but are getting hands-on experience in the real world. Take early childhood education students, for example—they can be out in district and community PK-3 classrooms, putting their skills to the test and making a difference through an immersive experience.

Also, field work extends learning beyond the classroom, providing multiday experiences that deepen understanding through sustained project work in real-world settings. And finally, whether teaming up with a local nonprofit or the city, students are not just siloed in the classroom for their project work; they are out in the community making an impact.

Once you have landed on a community connection(s) to pursue, reference this planning guide, which includes important questions and logistics to think through, and consider the following educator and student preparation steps:

Preparation for Educators

Educators can use everyday tools like email or phone calls to reach out to community contacts listed in the asset map. Educators must consider scheduling, setting clear expectations for student behavior and participation, and putting together a handy tip sheet for presenters. Plus, educators must ensure that everything runs smoothly, from arranging transportation and sorting out chaperones to making sure all materials are good to go. Backward planning helps ensure that these experiences are seamless and full of learning opportunities for everyone involved.

Preparation for Students

To maximize the learning experience for students, there are several key steps. First, students should get a preview of guest speaker details and field trip venues ahead of time, jot down insightful questions to ask, and decide how to capture their thinking during their experiences.

One solid method to ensure that students are fully equipped to derive maximum benefit from upcoming learning opportunities is to have them generate a list of what they already know (“knows”) and what they still need to find out (“need to knows”). Then, reflection on the experience afterward is a must so that students can pause and think deeply about what they’ve learned and how to apply that learning.

Overall, community connections help pave the way to career exploration and blur the line between school and work. They are like a magic ingredient that amps up student motivation and excitement by letting students dive into real-life projects and hands-on experiences. Plus, teaming up with folks in the community helps students build a network while still in high school. And one of the best parts: Connecting with community members helps students grow their confidence and pick up the necessary postsecondary and workforce readiness skills needed for future success.

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  • Career & Technical Education
  • Community Partnerships
  • 9-12 High School

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