In 1994, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) challenged states and local communities to build a nationwide system of school-to-work programs that prepare students for postsecondary education and rewarding careers. The STWOA was informed by school-to-work initiatives already under way in many localities, states, and other countries — initiatives that had been implemented in response to changes in the global economy and an increasing demand for high-skilled workers. The STWOA also had the effect of ratifying and reinforcing home-grown initiatives in the United States. These school-to-work initiatives bring together education professionals, community leaders, and employers committed to improving public education by creating opportunities for students to learn about careers through classroom instruction and to participate in work-based learning.
In seeking to build upon such activities, the STWOA established three core components for a nationwide system in which all students will have the opportunity to participate in (1) school-based learning about work and careers, (2) work-based learning opportunities, and (3) "connecting activities" that link experiences in schools and workplaces. The federal government also provides technical assistance and funding to help states and localities launch school-to-work initiatives. As of spring 1997, all states received planning grants to initiate school-to-work approaches, and 37 states and nearly 125 local partnerships between schools and employers are receiving competitive implementation grants, which continue to be awarded on a rolling basis. This ambitious initiative has now been taken up by schools, post-secondary institutions, employers, unions, civic groups, and other public and private sector organizations across the United States, in a richly diverse collection of locally designed responses to the STWOA.
The experiences of 16 pioneering school-to-work efforts that preceded the STWOA are a valuable source of ideas and lessons for policymakers and practitioners — and this study is part of a continuing effort by MDRC to identify and disseminate some of those lessons. The 16 programs featured in this report are grouped into five different programmatic approaches to school-to-work: Career Academies, Occupational Academic Cluster programs, Restructured Vocational Education programs, Tech Prep programs, and Youth Apprenticeship programs.