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What’s Working: Linked Learning’s Pathway to Success for Students

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

Four years ago, a young man entered the 9th grade at the STEM Academy of Hollywood seemingly marked for failure. 

“He was autistic, though high-functioning,” says Paul Hirsch, principal of The STEM Academy, a public school on the east side of Los Angeles. Most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and many speak English as a second language and contend with learning difficulties. Nearly all have grown up in close proximity to gang violence. This rising 9th grader—who Hirsh preferred not to name to respect the student’s privacy—looked like he fit the bill all too well. 

“In middle school, he had been pretty isolated, kept in a separate classroom,” Hirsch continued. “When we got his Individual Education Program, it said he was prone to violence.” 

At one point, that description would have predicted a grim future for this student. Just four years prior, STEM Academy staff were breaking up fights daily, and the school had only a 66 percent graduation rate. But around the time of his arrival, the academy received their certification from the Linked Learning Alliance (LLA), a statewide coalition of education, industry, and community organizations dedicated to improving California’s high schools and preparing students for success in college, career, and life.

Linked Learning started in California but a similar approach is now used in schools across the country. LLA supports and certifies schools in the evidence-based Linked Learning approach, which emphasizes technical instruction, work-based learning, and wrap-around support services to help students stay on track. 

Thanks to the Linked Learning approach, Hirsch said, “students with disabilities sit side by side with gifted students, English learners, and general ed students. Together with additional support they work on engaging projects in medicine and engineering.” When it works, as it did for the STEM Academy’s supposedly troublesome new freshman, the results can be transformative: Just this spring, he graduated and will soon attend California State University Northridge to study science. Learning side-by-side with his peers in a supportive and non-punitive environment that built on strengths, the young man thrived.

“When kids are engaged,” said Hirsch, “their potential is unlimited.”

Scaling-Up a Proven Method

An initiative of the James Irvine Foundation, a long-running California philanthropic organization, Linked Learning was created with the mission to understand and expand high-quality education practices. The organization wanted to study as wide a range of strategies as possible to help promote the best approaches in schools and as policy. The Linked Learning approach is based on four core principles: 1) rigorous academics that prepare students to succeed in college; 2) career-technical education courses emphasizing real-world applications of academic learning; 3) work-based learning that provides exposure to real-world workplaces and teaches professional skills; and 4) comprehensive support services to address the individual needs of all students.

To test and learn from systemic implementation of the approach, the James Irvine Foundation provided funding to launch the Linked Learning District Initiative, a pilot program in nine California school districts, which were evaluated by SRI International, a prominent D.C.-area research institute. The positive student outcomes found through the multi-year evaluation helped secure the support of state officials and the wider public, including companies and businesses who were eager to hire young people for internships and mentorships. Soon, the movement started to scale up. 

“We keep asking, ‘How can we work with the bigger systems to get this to scale?’” said Anne Stanton, the president of Linked Learning. “We want to help advance equitable access and outcomes. The majority of young people should have access to these opportunities in California. We’re mindful of the balance required to capture what we’re learning and continuously improve.”


They maintain that balance through Linked Learning certification, a system that incentivizes and recognizes high quality pathways that deliver on the promise of Linked Learning equitably for all students.   As pathways achieve higher levels of certification, they are able to access a broader array of benefits within the network, including access to student scholarships. More than 300,000 young people are now going to school in Linked Learning classrooms around the country. But the on-the-ground educational work is still led by teachers and school administrators, not dictated from high.

“Linked Learning is an approach, not a program,” specifies Hilary McLean, executive vice president of the LLA. “We’re not going in and prescribing. We create a framework for success for Linked Learning to thrive, but it’s led by local partners. We have principles and an approach, but we’re meant for adaptation.”

A Hollywood Makeover

The STEM Academy of Hollywood is a perfect example of what Linked Learning can do. When the school went looking for a fresh approach to frame their instruction, they knew they wanted something that stressed STEM education, inclusivity, and improved graduation rates. Linked Learning certification seemed like the right way forward. 

The culmination of their years-long effort to pursue certification occurred during the 2013-14 school year. The long process requires significant buy-in from administration and staff, but the renewed sense of vision and purpose is a huge payoff. Paul Hirsch immediately saw a difference. 

“For lunch, kids would typically go downstairs to the cafeteria,” he said. “But I started noticing that it looked increasingly empty. The kids were all in the teachers’ classrooms. Teachers and students now have lunch together every day, they’re part of each other’s lives. Today, kids are staying after school until 6, 7, 8 at night doing 3-D printing, building catapults. It’s a transformation, it feels like a family.”

They have the data to prove it, too, including a 98 percent graduation rate and dramatically increased student participation in internships at Kaiser-Permanente and on-site learning opportunities through the Los Angeles Metro.  Work-based learning is one of Linked Learning’s four core principles, so all certified schools provide these kinds of career pathways for young people. The focus on real-world experience and career-focused education helps students visualize life beyond the classroom and lay the groundwork for a successful transition from high school into a job or postsecondary education. This kind of perspective shift can be a real breakthrough—for individual students as well as whole schools. 

Hirsch sums up the change in one sentence: “The money we used to spend on security guards, we now spend on new lab equipment.”

This story is part of a short series focused on highlighting pathway programs throughout the country.  To learn more, check out the first story in the series about Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates here.

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

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To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.