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Richmond High School kids learn about surgery on a field trip at San Francisco General Hospital

Richmond leaders and educators gather to discuss future of education in the school district

on February 28, 2013

When Jose Irizarry took his Richmond High School class to visit San Francisco General Hospital recently, it was not your typical field trip. The students donned scrubs and spent time with hospital surgeons learning how to tie sutures and practice with arthroscopic surgical machines. They even got to study a human cadaver.

For Irizarry, the trip was a chance to teach real world skills required for a career in a health profession. The visit, and the goals, are part of the Linked Learning philosophy, a model for high school education and a technique the West Contra Costa Unified School District has been employing for 10 years.

On Wednesday, Irizarry, who teaches economics, geography and U.S. history at Richmond High School, joined a crowd of approximately 60 local business owners, city leaders, school board members, and students and educators from the West County schools at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts for the district’s Linked Learning Summit. Sponsored by Chevron, the event offered a chance to discuss the future of education in the county and programs like Irizarry’s health academy.

The district is one of nine districts in the state that employ the Linked Learning approach, which emphasizes job skills training and college readiness through classroom study and internship experience. Students in WCCUSD high schools can elect to join what the district calls academies, or career-oriented pathways. Through the academies, which range from engineering to the performing arts, students are taught skills specific to that career and are eligible for outside internships in that field through partnerships with local businesses.

Students in Irizarry’s health academy can take practical courses like sports medicine, or work on resume writing. Once they see how empty that first resume is, Irizarry said, they’re more likely to actually do something – an internship, a summer job — to fill it up. Both opportunities not only give students the chance to connect with adults in the working world, but local business owners are able to have a positive impact on the next generation of business leaders, Irizarry said. “Both sides benefit,” he said.

The overall goal of the academies and the Linked Learning approach is to provide students with the practical skills needed for the next phase of life after high school.

“It could be training for college or any training to get you where you want to go in life,” Irizarry said. “You have to decided where you want to end up on that wheel.”

The event’s keynote speaker, Dr. Willard Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, lauded the district for its attempt at improving the educational system, and challenged leaders and educators to mentor other districts while also looking to other successful districts across the nation for additional models of improvement.

A student panel, moderated by Chevron’s Community Engagement Specialist Andrea Bailey, gave attendees a chance to hear first-hand the impact of the district’s learning academies. Several students spoke about the impact of the academies in helping them shape a career path, but for Bertha Romo, a recent UC Berkeley graduate and alumna of the Richmond High School health/law academy, the impact was a bit different.

“One of the things that was interesting about my experience is that I actually learned that I didn’t want to go into the medical field,” she said. “So, going into college I could think about other opportunities.”

Still, she said that interning in the emergency room at Kaiser Hospital through the Richmond High School health academy helped prepare her for life after college in some very practical ways, noting the development of skills like customer service, and working in teams and with staff. “I had the opportunity to begin to develop them as a high school student,” she said. “That is a huge gain to get walking out of high school.”

Another goal of Wednesday night’s event was to encourage community members and local business owners to invest in the Linked Learning approach. But the district is asking for time, not money, said Madeline Kronenberg, WCCUSD School Board member. “We need you on our team,” she told the crowd at the end of the night.

She asked the attendees to volunteer to host student interns or site visits, and to make classroom visits at the district schools. For Kronenberg, Linked Learning and involving the entire community in the education of its young people are essential. She likened the concept to the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“This creates the village,” she said. “And the village is where we all grow.”

Bertha Romo agreed and noted that investments in young people now will pay off down the line.

“You’re investing in our future,” she told the crowd. “It’s kind of cliché, and we hear that a lot, but that’s what it really comes down to. Our youth are going to be leading organizations here in Richmond, leading businesses, and they need to be prepared for that.”

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