The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is poised to create millions of new jobs in green energy and climate infrastructure that could offer middle-class wages and jobs with growth potential to young workers across the country. To implement the act’s plan fully, the country will need to quickly build a skilled workforce ready to fill these jobs. This demand offers an extraordinary chance to provide equitable opportunities for young people of color and those from lower-income families to secure these jobs. High school career academies (also called pathways) may offer an evidence-based place to start. These programs combine a college preparatory curriculum with a career theme and are often structured as small learning communities inside larger high schools. An MDRC evaluation found students who attended career academies experienced improved earnings over the long term. Academies and pathways focused on sectors related to green infrastructure can help high school students build valuable work skills while preparing them for postsecondary education in fast-growing job sectors. MDRC is learning from schools and programs across the country that are building innovative models to prepare high school students for jobs in climate infrastructure.
For almost 15 years, the Green Energy Pathway—a career academy—at Skyline High School in Oakland, California has been educating students with a project-based curriculum that explores science-based solutions to global warming. That longevity means the Green Energy Pathway may offer lessons on how to make environmentally focused education successful and sustainable.
The academy is aligned with California’s energy, environment, and utilities industry-sector program. It currently serves about 420 students across grades 9 through 12. A majority of Skyline High School students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and the school serves mostly students from racial and ethnic minorities. Skyline High School pathways include a cohort model, where students in each grade take many of their classes together with dedicated academy teachers and have a dedicated counselor. They also include an integrated curriculum with core academic courses aligned with sequenced career and technical education. The Green Energy Pathway has an explicit sequence of science and career/technical course sequences that focuses on sustainability and provides multiple opportunities in each grade level for integrating the green-energy theme into different subjects. Teachers across the core subjects work together to support project-based learning that links core academic subjects with career and green-energy themes. Students also participate in a variety of work-based learning activities including visits to companies and organizations, grade level community-based projects such as the 11th grade “Classroom of the Future” project, and internship opportunities, culminating in a capstone project in 12th grade where students apply what they have learned about renewable energy to address and find solutions to environmental issues in their community. Community leaders from a variety of green-energy-focused organizations and institutions attend and review students’ final presentations.
Green Energy Pathway staff members and students identified the following ingredients that they believe has kept their pathway operating successfully for many years:
Having a lot of structures that support pathways and academies
The Green Energy Pathway has greatly benefited from policy structures that have been put in place over the years to support the growth, endurance, and success of academies, including:
At the state level: The California Department of Education sponsors California Partnership Academies across the state, providing funding, training, support systems, and accountability to hundreds of academies, including the Green Energy Pathway. (MDRC is currently conducting a rigorous, long-term evaluation of 17 of these academies. Initial findings on high school graduation and college readiness will be released next year.)
At the district level: The Oakland Unified School District encourages its schools to offer career academies and pathways to their students. For example, the teachers in the academy are provided with time to work together to build and revise their project-based curricula and integrate energy-based themes into their classes, give students individual support, and engage with outside organizations, institutions, and companies. The district also supports a robust internship program providing students across the district with paid work-based learning experiences. Skyline High School is one of many high schools in Oakland Unified where all students participate in an academy or pathway; the Green Energy Pathway is one of four pathways at the school.
At the program level: Academy staff members have convened an advisory board a few times each year made up of representatives from the district, partner organizations, partner postsecondary institutions, current and former academy staff members, and academy students. The board members provide advice and help connect the academy to needed resources and opportunities, with the goal of ensuring it is constantly evolving with the latest science and technology and meeting the needs of students and the community.
Building diverse, long-lasting relationships
Teachers and students agreed that one of the most important aspects of the academy was the opportunity to get real-world experience with industry and governmental partners and through college connections. One student noted that it was “really nice doing things that are applicable to real life and to explore careers and understand what fields are out there and be able to find work you like to do.” One thing that the teachers in the Green Energy Pathway try to instill in their students is that environmental issues will be at the forefront of many careers in the coming years, not just for scientists and engineers, but also for lawyers and accountants, among others. One student noted that he was happy to learn that “it was not all hard science, there are different career paths like environmental justice, public policy, and business” where you can still play an important role in creating a carbon-neutral infrastructure.
The Green Energy Pathway provides many different types of work-based learning experiences over the course of its four years. For example, students work on a project analyzing green homes in Oakland called Green Town Projects where they create interactive maps of Oakland neighborhoods using ArcGIS. They also get hands-on experience doing solar-panel installation with GRID Alternatives. They go on visits to or participate in activities with East Bay Municipal Utilities District, Pacific Gas and Electric, Waste Management, Tesla, and SunPower to name just some of the other partners.
They also have strong relationships with all the local postsecondary institutions. In tenth grade, for example, students participate in Y-PLAN, a University of California, Berkeley course that connects students with a civic client that has real climate and energy questions. Students also highlighted the many dual-enrollment opportunities they have with the local community colleges’ environmental programs and opportunities to visit several other local institutions to learn about their environmental programs.
Focusing on equity
Skyline High School takes diversity and inclusivity seriously in its admissions into pathways. Before tenth grade, all students at Skyline get to select their pathways for the rest of high school. (Students who were in the Green Energy Pathway in ninth grade can decide to move to another pathway and new students can opt into the Green Energy Pathway at that time.) Students get their first or second choice, but the staff works together to also ensure that the student makeup in each pathway reflects the demographics of the school. The Green Energy Pathway, and all the pathways at Skyline High School, have diverse populations of students with all academic levels represented and intermingling.
With almost 15 years of experience, the Green Energy Pathway at Skyline High School provides some useful guideposts for how to build programs that can prepare high school students for a future job market focused on green energy and climate infrastructure.