Beyond ‘follow your dreams’: What it will really take to close the minority skills gap

As millions of middle — and high-school students around the country head back to school this month, many will hear inspirational messages encouraging them to “follow your dreams.” It’s good advice, but we teachers and administrators fail our students when we leave it at that.

The conventional wisdom is that the first step to following their dreams is for students to work hard and get good grades. But this is an incomplete map — the route for students who will be entering the workforce in the next four to fourteen years is more complex than it was a generation ago.

The students most likely to succeed are the ones who plot their course ahead of time based on a clear understanding of the realities of the economy and the job market, and who are equipped with relevant skills before entering college.

That’s the core message of a new book from Vince M. Bertram, a longtime teacher, administrator and now the CEO of Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit that develops curriculum in subjects like computer science and engineering.

The route for students who will be entering the workforce in the next four to fourteen years is more complex than it was a generation ago.

In his new book, “Dream Differently: Candid Advice for America’s Students,” Bertram offers practical insights and wisdom for students of all ages, helping them ask the right questions: What are the skills that I need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy? How do I distinguish myself from all the other competition? What obstacles await me in college, internships and the first stages of my career?

While Bertram’s book is written for students and their advisers, it’s instructive for educators as well. After all, we are the ones responsible for ensuring students leave our classrooms with the modern skills they need to succeed in college and beyond, especially in fields like computer science and other science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.

Increased access to these skills is a universal need, but the lack of opportunity is most stark in minority communities. According to a recent study by Google and Gallup, black students are less likely than white students to have access to computer science courses in their schools, and less like to have access to a computer at home. This translates to the high tech job market, where the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that African- Americans hold just 7.4 percent of the jobs, about half as much as in the private sector overall.

Closing the minority skills gap is one of the goals for Digital Pioneers Academy (DPA), a new charter school opening next year in one of Washington, D.C., poorest neighborhoods.

Our mission is to develop the next generation of innovators by preparing students to meet high academic standards and cultivate the strength of character necessary to both graduate from a four-year college and thrive in 21st century careers. Of particular focus is providing students with access to learning that is infused with skills such as computer science and coding that are becoming increasingly critical in the job market.

College readiness is about much more than getting good grades in high school. Preparing students for the future requires fostering their analytic, creative and computational thinking in classroom environments that are engaging and rigorous. Importantly, we must also develop in students a sense that attending and succeeding in school correlates to a viable, high-wage job.

When students see that their elementary, middle and high school classes are part of the journey of following their dreams, and not merely 12 years glued to the starting blocks, they will be more motivated to value their schoolwork.

Succeeding in tomorrow’s economy is possible for all students. “Dream Differently” provides a map for students, teachers and administrators to turn career dreams into reality.

Mashea Ashton is the chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund. She holds a master’s degree in special education from The College of William & Mary, and taught in several failing school districts before becoming a full-time advocate for comprehensive education reform. Follow Mashea on Twitter @mashea.

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