Underneath the complex calculus and pages full of historical dates and figures, it can sometimes be lost that attending school is not only about fostering students’ knowledge, but also about preparing them for what comes next. In a time when uncertainty reigns, graduates from Oregon Charter Academy’s (ORCA) career and technical education program, ASCEND, will leave with a better understanding of what they want to do after having explored various career paths.
In a sense, ASCEND is a school within a school, open to high school students (and a few ambitious eighth graders). Students apply to join a smaller cohort of ORCA students, who then select specific pathways to augment their standard curriculum with career-relevant knowledge and skills. John Meyer, once a Navy serviceman and small business owner, now oversees ASCEND, as well other High School Success programs such as ninth-grade-on-track and dropout prevention.
“I saw a real need for something when I was hiring. I was always challenged to find qualified candidates,” Meyer said. “When I started developing this program, we set out an initial goal of really making our students employable in their chosen career field, whether that was getting them ready to enter that directly or helping them leverage their experience in high school into postsecondary education.”
Before a student is admitted, they are interviewed via questionnaire or a Zoom call from a teacher. Once they are accepted, they can choose from different pathways: business and management, computer science, early childhood education, medical science, and the latest addition, veterinary science.
“The mandates that I had for my team were that a student was going to be able to graduate with the opportunity to gain industry certification, work-based learning experiences or internships, and those 21st-century skills that we often saw missing in the interview process with potential employees,” Meyer said.
Meyer and his colleagues have worked to build relationships with individuals and companies in various arenas of industry. All of the ASCEND instructors come from the field, so the academic knowledge they share is coupled with firsthand experience. ORCA overcame doubt from other educators throughout the state who questioned whether such a system would work at a virtual public school.
“It is certainly innovative,” Meyer said. “When we first started this, we were told it would never work—we couldn’t do it. They’ve seen our success, especially over the last few months. Now they’re coming to us, asking: How do you do this? How does it work?”
The challenge has been cultivating opportunities for students spread across a great distance, from medical industry partnerships with Providence to a one-person vet clinic in rural Christmas Valley. Each pathway includes at least one course’s worth of college credit, but the goal is to increase that so students could possibly earn an associate’s degree in the future. Not only do they earn real-world knowhow, they also learn to work as a team with their classmates.
“We look at our program like a tree. You start out in the trunk, with your core education. You move up into the branches, and you can choose a path to go on,” Meyer explained. “On that branch, at any time, you can move into your career or continue on to postsecondary education, but you’re always on that same pathway, leveraging your past knowledge and experience.”
Students in the business and management pathway may take courses named Intro to Marketing or Digital Literacy, but there’s flexibility there, too. Maybe you started with medical science, but quickly found out blood isn’t your thing. ORCA will work with you to find the better fit. A priority is that even if you don’t know what to pursue in college, before you decide, you will be qualified for a well-paying job that can help to fund postsecondary education—and avoid crippling student debt.
The results speak for themselves. Last year, every single student from the program graduated, and many of them dove right into their next chapters.
“We had a computer science student graduate, and he already owns his own software business that he has headquartered down in Silicon Valley,” Meyer said. “He was traveling back and forth during the school year, giving presentations and really leveraging his experience right away. This student was accepted at UC Berkeley with a full-ride scholarship to continue his studies.”
ASCEND also had a 15-year-old graduate, showing that the pace really is up to the student—slower or faster, the teachers are there for support. With smaller class sizes, they can truly engage their students, ensuring that difficulties in math will not hinder a virtuoso language arts student.
“The program is a family. We’re checking in every week,” Meyer added. “They’re just more invested in school because school has a purpose. They see their future in what they’re doing. To me, that really creates student success.”