Choosing their own adventures

By Sarah Earle

With more options than ever and new challenges ahead, students need clear, personalized guidance as they explore career pathways

Part One of a Two-Part Series

Veteran Concord High School science teacher Jane Voth-Palisi seems to draw energy from some secret source. 

On a Friday morning, she’s coordinating separate activities for students in her hybrid Advanced Placement Biology class, instructing in-person students to grab their goggles and gloves and head to the lab to study E. coli, while taking attendance of her online students and getting them set up with a video on epigenetics. Her glasses steam up a little above her medical mask as she gives rapid-fire instructions into her headset.  

“It sounds a little like rush hour in Boston in here,” she says brightly. 

That metaphor could also apply to high school life: a fast-paced, jam-packed journey often filled with lane switches, roadblocks, uncertainty, and confusion. 

Voth-Palisi’s AP Bio class is a little like a carpool lane. It’s a Running Start class, a college-level class taught by approved instructors and offering both college and high school credit. 

Running Start is one of many initiatives around the state aimed at guiding young people onto viable career pathways, a complex task with a multi-pronged goal: to help students explore passions, work towards their college and career goals, and save money while also developing the skills they’ll need when they join an ever-changing workforce. It’s a goal that’s also become more urgent and more challenging in the face of current demographic and workforce realities. 

A taste of college

As a brand new teacher at Concord High School in 1986, Voth-Palisi cheered on her colleague, Christa McAuliffe, while she prepared to go to space and then mourned alongside teachers and students when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. That incident rooted her in place at Concord High, and McAuliffe’s motto, “I touch the future,” has guided her ever since. 

Voth-Palisi started teaching dual-enrollment courses through Running Start shortly after Gov. John Lynch signed the program into law in 1999.

“He really wanted to give all students an opportunity to see what it’s going to be like in college, but particularly those whose families hadn’t gone to college,” Voth-Palisi said earlier this month during a quick lunch-hour chat over Zoom, a bright-white winter scene behind her on the screen. “It was kind of a whole package to get kids to know what the college pathway would be.”

Running Start classes are taught by high school teachers who have been approved as faculty adjuncts at the corresponding community colleges. They work with companion teachers at the college to ensure the classes meet college requirements. Students register, pay $150, and maintain a C average in the class in order to receive college credit (as well as high school credit). The credits are accepted by more than 200 colleges and universities across the country. 

Running Start classes have become enormously popular at Concord High: This year, there are 28 to choose from. Students often select classes based on whether they offer dual-enrollment credits, said Voth-Palisi, who now coordinates the program. 

“It just makes good sense,” she said. 

The same is true across the state. Running Start operates in more than 100 high schools and last year had more than 10,000 enrollments, according to Beth Doiron, college access programs director for the Community College System of New Hampshire.

The program’s popularity is due in large part to the Governor’s STEM Scholarship Program, implemented by Gov. Chris Sununu in 2016, which allows students to take up to two classes per year in a STEM-related field free of charge. In the second year of the scholarship, enrollments leaped by more than 35%, Doiron said. Many of those enrollments were students who might not otherwise have enrolled in college classes. 

This year, however, the program was delivered a blow when the scholarship was defunded in the Governor’s proposed budget for the coming biennium. Budget writers have proposed partially restoring the funding in their version of the budget, but ultimately, the scholarship’s funding is in limbo.  

While Running Start has been successful in getting some students to think about college who might not have otherwise done so, there is more work to be done in that regard, Voth-Palisi said. 

The loss of  the scholarship could shut those students out. 

A ‘frictionless model’

Setting young people up for success requires vision and a clear road map, said Steve Rothenberg, director of the Concord Regional Technical Center at Concord High School. 

Students have a variety of options when it comes to college and career readiness, including work-based learning programs, extended learning opportunities (ELOs), dual and concurrent classes, and other options. Navigating these options can be confusing, especially for families new to college-and-career planning. 

Rather than simply presenting college-and-career choices in an a la carte fashion, schools and institutions need to create individualized pathways for students, offering them personalized guidance on how the various options connect to their goals, Rothenberg said. Additionally, students need to be able to move easily between the different options. 

“You need a frictionless model,” he said. 

That’s the idea behind the “Drive to 65 Act” passed into law in 2019. Recognizing that the NH workforce will demand a higher level of educational attainment than the current average, the act requires school districts to create a career-readiness plan for each entering student  — beginning with career exploration and then moving toward well-defined goals and roadmaps for achieving those goals through career and technical education courses, dual-enrollment courses, ELOs, work-based learning programs and other options. 

The Community College System of New Hampshire is looking at ways to partner with high schools in that mission. “We want to build out some pathways on paper so that we can promote those to schools,” Doiron said. “We want students to understand how Running Start courses and early college in general can translate into a program of study.” 

Glimpsing the future

A new state-by-state analysis by American Student Assistance confirms some of the challenges educators are observing in setting all students up for success.  It finds that very few states have set up clear programs for ensuring high-need students have equitable access to work-based learning programs. Additionally, very few effectively communicate work-based learning opportunities to students. 

Making student pathways clear and accessible is a worthy goal, but the real trick is sparking passion, Voth-Palisi said. Her most notable success stories have come from students who have fashioned their own programs of study. Seeing the value of student-centered learning, Concord High has joined a growing number of high schools in establishing a dedicated extended learning opportunity (ELO) program. 

“Every single year somebody finds me and says can we do an ELO?’ ” Voth-Palisi said. “And they just fly with it. … If you let a kid choose a passion that might give them a glimpse into their future and celebrate their curiosity, I never have seen anything more satisfying.” 

Coming Tomorrow: Challenges and innovations in college and career readiness