Career Pathways Start in K-12: Improving Career Readiness for Low Income Students

Communities cannot allow a single potential worker to graduate without the diploma and skills needed to participate fully in the workforce – doing so could have long-term negative impacts on economic growth and dynamism as employers move elsewhere to find the skilled workers they need.

On-time high school graduation rates in the United States reached a record high of 83% for the 2014-2015 academic year. Even as these rates have steadily risen nationwide, they vary widely across states and income levels.

The graduation rate of low income students (defined as those who qualify for free or reduced price lunches) was 74.6%, compared to nearly 90% for non-low-income students, a gap of 14 percentage points.

Increasingly, these low income students are concentrated in high poverty schools, where at least 75% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced price lunches. Since the 1999-2000 academic year, the percentage of public school students attending high poverty schools has doubled, from approximately 12% to nearly 25%.

Nationally, the percentage of students from low income families in public schools has continued to rise, reaching 51% in 2013. (To find out more about low income students, please see this month's Featured Indicator from Alex Tranmer's that highlights recently released NCES data.) 


But, this is an economic development blog, so what do graduation rates and poverty have to do with economic development?

Students graduating from a community's schools are its future workforce. As baby boomers continue to age out of the workforce, labor force participation rates are expected to decline – making it essential that every potential worker has the skills and knowledge needed to be work and career ready. Students without a high school diploma already face a challenging job market, with higher unemployment rates and lower earnings than their more educated peers. Job prospects for these workers are expected to continue to shrink as employers demand more highly educated and skilled workers.

Additionally, with lower earnings and higher rates of unemployment, workers without a high school diploma or more advanced degrees can strain a community's resources, forcing more funding to be allocated to the social safety net and less to strategic investments. Finally, workers who have not completed high school or received a GED will face more barriers to attaining industry recognized credentials or more advanced degrees that open up new career opportunities.

In short, communities cannot allow potential workers to graduate without the diploma and skills needed to participate fully in the workforce – doing so could have long-term negative impacts on economic growth and dynamism as employers move elsewhere to find the skilled workers they need. 


As communities seek to increase graduation rates at high poverty schools, many have turned to the community schools model.

Community schools combine social services and healthcare resources with expanded learning opportunities to reduce chronic absenteeism, increase student engagement, and ultimately, improve test scores and increase graduation rates. This general framework has been refined and adapted by communities across the country to ensure that low income students not only have access to the educational resources they need to succeed but also the social services that may be needed to ensure they are fed, clothed, and safe and the health services needed to ensure they are physically and mentally prepared to succeed in school. Creating this new learning framework typically requires a realignment of existing resources and new partnerships, not the development of new organizations or service providers.

In addition to social and health services, community schools offer students expanded learning opportunities (ELOs). These ELOs often take the form of extended hours during the week and on weekends, work experiences, and one-on-one tutoring and mentorship. In some examples, students are assigned a coordinator who regularly checks in with the student and watches for early signs of challenges, including absenteeism and low grades.

Community schools also focus on offering engaging instruction that goes beyond the classroom. Lessons learned in school are applied to student volunteer work and enhanced through partnerships with community organizations, higher education institutions, and employers. These partnerships with employers and higher education often take the form of Career Academies, which combine a traditional school curriculum with occupational skills training and work experiences related to an important industry in the community. By incorporating tangible applications of learning into the school curriculum, students tend to be more engaged and graduate more prepared to enter a field with strong wages and a strong future or continue their education at community colleges or 4-year universities.

Community Schools Resources: 

Coalition for Community Schools: includes background information on community schools, tools to begin planning for and starting a community school, and case studies of successful school


Contact Information

PO Box 3547
Saratoga Springs NY 12866

Contact Us