Passion and pathways in a new year (The Independent)

In Rhode Island, we are changing what it means to graduate ready for college and career success.

Shelby Kosiver is starting her senior year of high school at Ponaganset High School, but her resume already looks like that of a college student. Through the Advanced Course Network, she took criminal and juvenile justice courses at Roger Williams University for free, and completed a job shadow at the Woonsocket Police Department.

Nathan Williamson spent his summer as a PrepareRI Intern at the Perspectives Corporation, an agency dedicated to supporting Rhode Islanders with disabilities. This hands-on experience will serve Nathan well as he continues to pursue the health care pathway at Coventry High School and work towards receiving his CNA certification by the time he graduates.

Melissa Giron is already a year ahead of her peers, having taken on a full course load at the Community College of Rhode Island during her senior year at Tolman High School in Pawtucket. By participating in dual enrollment, she received her high school diploma and finished her first year of college at the same time, and is poised to pursue medicine at the University of Rhode Island.

Their passions are different, but Shelby, Nathan and Melissa have something important in common: their career pathways started in high school, thanks to opportunities that are available to every public school student in Rhode Island, for free, no matter where you live.

As we like to say, if you have the passion, we have a pathway.

Student passion and career pathways come together under the Prepare Rhode Island (PrepareRI) initiative, a statewide strategy launched by Gov. Gina Raimondo to prepare all Rhode Island youth for good jobs. We have seen tremendous growth since 2015. We’ve increased the number of career and technical education programs by 56 percent, with a record 203 approved career and technical education (CTE) programs across the state. We’ve tripled the number of college credits earned by high school students in the last three years. We’ve embedded computer science into all of our schools through CS4RI, and increased the number of students completing college level computer science coursework from less than 100 to more than 1,500. We’ve increased participation in Advanced Placement courses overall by 38 percent, and had the largest year-over-year increase in the number of students earning a qualifying score on an AP assessment in the country, last year.

More students than ever are being exposed to career pathways, as early as middle school. More students are exploring those careers through internships and hands-on CTE classes. More students are challenging themselves with advanced coursework, and more students are earning college credits, at no cost, while still in high school.

Rhode Island has more programs to challenge and engage our students, and more opportunities for students to thrive.

We’re not slowing down, either. For the past two years, the Advanced Course Network (ACN) has offered free, advanced-level coursework to students, and had summer classes for the first time this year. We placed more than 160 rising high school seniors into paid summer internships thanks to the PrepareRI Internship Program. Every day, we are working with our colleagues across government, in higher education, and in the community to build partnerships, expand programs, and increase equity of access. In CTE, Computer Science for Rhode Island, dual and concurrent enrollment and beyond, we are doubling down. The best pathway to a great job is getting your first job.

This growth is something that all Rhode Islanders can be proud of, because it translates into opportunity for our students.

With the start of a new school year upon us, I call on all students and families to look at the opportunities available to you and find out how you can get involved in Prepare Rhode Island. Don’t wait. Make this school year count, and seize the opportunity to get a head start on college and career. Visit prepare-ri.org to learn more, and join the ranks of Shelby, Nathan, Melissa and the thousands of Rhode Island students who are forging their pathways to a successful future.

Ken Wagner, Ph.D., is Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.