Commentary: Delaware Pathways builds a lasting foundation

By Paul Herdman
Posted 10/4/21

In the 10th grade, a student at Appoquinimink High School heard a guest speaker one day in his plant science class — a rep from LandCare, a nationally known landscaping company. In 11th grade, …

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Commentary: Delaware Pathways builds a lasting foundation


In the 10th grade, a student at Appoquinimink High School heard a guest speaker one day in his plant science class — a rep from LandCare, a nationally known landscaping company. In 11th grade, the student met the company’s human resources director at his school’s Workforce Readiness Fair. In 12th grade, he embarked on a two-week, immersive “work-based learning” experience at the company, where he went through the paces of an everyday employee.

By graduation, the student will have a full-time position awaiting him and a broad range of options for growth.

For this student, jumping into the workforce right out of high school was his preferred path. For others, going on to an apprenticeship or a four-year degree is what might make sense. Delaware Pathways is about choices. We want our young people to maximize their potential, and by giving them meaningful work experiences and opportunities to advance their learning while still in high school, we feel as though we’re expanding their options.

These types of stories are happening by the thousands every year across Delaware. As our school leaders continue to navigate through and rebound from COVID-19, one pre-pandemic innovation remains stronger than ever. Our state continues to shine as a national leader when it comes to providing real-world career experiences for students, while they sharpen their academic skills in high school.

When Delaware Pathways first launched in 2015, it was a small but dedicated web of partners linked through William Penn High School and Delaware Technical Community College. It was clear the world of work was changing — and a disconnect between career training and K-12 education was scattered, at best.

Employers needed more, and the education system responded. Economic projections suggested that by 2025, 65% of jobs would require at least some education beyond high school. Not necessarily a four-year degree, but an apprenticeship or an associate degree was going to be increasingly important. Today, with more than 50% of all Delaware high schoolers, hundreds of employers and just about every public high school in the state engaged, we believe parents are coming to see that this is more than an initiative for kids who don’t want to go to college. This is an initiative for all young people — whether they want to go to med school, get involved in information technology or pursue a career in construction.

Delaware Pathways relies on a model that looks similar to what our vocational-technical schools have been doing for years: building connections between local schools, local businesses and community organizations to give young people a firsthand look at life after graduation. Pathways builds on that approach by starting earlier, as early as middle school, and going broader — we now have up to 24 career paths, many of which go beyond the traditional trades and allow for students to get a head start on college and/or a national certification, like becoming a certified nursing assistant. This can allow them to “earn and learn” if they want to start working after high school and have the option of continuing their education. As important, it may also them a chance to figure out what they don’t want to do.

In just the last three years, Delaware efforts skyrocketed. Thanks in part to some catalytic partnerships with the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg Philanthropies, Delaware built public-private partnership across state agencies, nonprofits and employers — including a new Office of Work-Based Learning at Delaware Technical Community College. Those connections led to a growth in enrollment from 27 to 23,000. Today, Pathways offers students the opportunity to earn an industry-recognized credential, early college credit and relevant work experience in key industry sectors, such as agriculture, education, finance, health care, hospitality and tourism, engineering and science, information technology and manufacturing.

Delaware’s Pathways progress — in growth and scale — caught national attention. Within a few years, Delaware has become recognized as a national leader: We were the subject of case studies from Harvard and R Street and recognized in The New York Times, Education Next and the Georgetown University Edunomics Lab.

Among our state’s core strengths are its ability to collaborate across sectors and braid funding streams. Over the years, we’ve leveraged and braided $23.75 million in funding, on top of some new state support from the likes of the abovementioned JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg Philanthropies, as well as the Strada Education Network, the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee (DBREC) and a raft of federal grants.

Career pathways are simply part of Delaware’s high school and postsecondary DNA today.

As Jobs for the Future recently wrote, states across the country are rightly “blurring the lines” between high school, college and work. Delaware is a proud contributor to this national conversation.


Paul Herdman is the president and CEO of Rodel, a nonprofit organization that partners with Delawareans and educational innovators from around the world to transform public education in the First State.