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Students at the Center: An Introduction to the Oakland Health Pathways Partnership

Earlier this year, the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) visited Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to show members of its staff and several state and local policymakers from across the country how the district has implemented Linked Learning. OUSD uses the Linked Learning approach to provide historically underserved students with real-world learning experiences alongside rigorous academic instruction and personal supports to help students graduate high school and pursue meaningful postsecondary opportunities. One way OUSD has accomplished this is through the Oakland Health Pathways Partnership (OHPP), a cross-sector initiative established in 2014 that has increased students’ exposure to health careers through high-quality work-based learning (WBL) experiences and relevant course work.

The health pathways program is one of thirteen career pathways offered in OUSD’s nineteen high schools. In 2014,the Atlantic Philanthropies, a limited life foundation, awardedOUSD an $11 million grant to expand and enhance its health pathways program by partnering with the local public health agency—the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency (ACHCSA)—and Alameda Health System (AHS), a public hospital system that also received a $10 million grant. These groups formed the OHPP to leverage resources and strategically collaborate to improve students’ experiences in health pathways.

As of 2018, more than 1,000 students participate annually in health pathways offered at six OUSD high schools, three of which were created after the OHPP began.

Significance of the Oakland Health Pathways Partnership

The OHPP aims to empower students and families with the knowledge and connections to make health career options attractive and feasible by strengthening connections between school curricula, health employers’ needs, and expertise and increasing access to high-quality WBL experiences in the health sector. These goals align with the growing need for health professionals. In 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that by 2026 the health-care industry would constitute about one-third of national job growth, with the employment rate in the health-care sector growing 22 percent compared to only 5 percent in all other sectors. Yet during the next decade, California likely will “not have enough of the right types of health workers in the right places to meet the needs of its growing, aging, and increasingly diverse population,” according to a 2019 report by the California Future Health Workforce Commission (CFHFC).

Another central goal of the OHPP is to increase local health-care workforce diversity, addressing the underrepresentation of people of color in the health field. In its 2019 report, the CFHFC emphasizes these disparities are particularly pronounced in California: “While Latinos are now nearly 40% of the state’s population … they compose only 7% of physicians.” Two suggested drivers of this disparity are lower educational attainment among students of color and students from low-income families and limited student awareness about the variety of health careers.

Early Evaluation Findings

SRI Education is conducting an independent evaluation of the OHPP. As part of this evaluation, SRI published two research reports: How Education and Industry Partner on Work-Based Learning and Student Experiences in Health Pathways (scheduled for release this month). Subsequent releases (scheduled for later this fall) will describe student outcomes (e.g., high school graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment) and provide a cost analysis of the partnership. 

SRI’s evaluation identifies successes of the cross-sector partnership model and students’ predominantly positive experiences in health pathways. One of the chief successes of the partnership is that it addressed barriers that impede many OUSD students from exploring their career interests beyond the classroom:

In a survey of seniors enrolled in health pathways at three OUSD high schools, two-thirds of students reported participating in internships, of which 70 percent were in the health field. Meanwhile, 59 percent of seniors reported receiving professional mentorship or career advice. Students also reported high levels of participation in other types of WBL. Among the students surveyed, 97 percent reported participating in at least one WBL experience arranged or required by their school, most commonly listening to guest speakers from a health profession (87 percent) or participating in career exploration field trips (80 percent).

To make health pathways more relevant to their students, school staff requested more Black male employees come speak to their pathway students so young men of color could see themselves represented in the industry. Schools also chose the focus of their health pathway carefully. For instance, one school chose social determinants of health as a lens for its curriculum after surveying students and families about their priorities. By addressing adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress, this pathway helped students understand the impact of their personal and community histories on their current health, encouraging a sense of agency. A leader at this pathway described how community-based action research projects tied classroom learning to students’ everyday lives and helped students understand “the factors destroying their community and how to disrupt [those factors].” 

Student Perceptions of Health Pathways

Students reported their health pathway experiences exposed them to a variety of career options and helped refine their personal career interests and goals. A twelfth-grade health pathway student described learning during clinical rotations that health careers are “not just doctors and nurses” but also include radiology technicians and medical programmers. Another student summarized her experience this way: “If you came in not knowing what you want to be, by the time you’re done you will have a sense of what you like versus what you don’t.” Another student remarked that she always was  “interested in health in general” but participating in a clinical internship and networking helped her develop a specific goal of becoming an intensive care nurse. Other students learned health careers were not for them, such as a senior who said her pathway experience “opened [her] eyes to what doctors go through” and helped her realize she would rather pursue cosmetology. Still, she added, “You can have a good experience [in a health pathway] even if you don’t want a health career.”

In summary, graduating seniors valued participating in health pathways. They enjoyed discussing real-life health issues facing their communities and then applying and building on those learnings in WBL experiences that helped them develop their career interests. Students also benefited from generalizable career readiness supports such as preparing for interviews, learning about appropriate workplace behavior, and forming professional networks.  

How States Can Leverage Federal Policy to Support Similar Partnerships

The recent passage of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) can further support partnerships like the OHPP. The revised federal law allows funding to be used for innovative partnerships between school districts, community colleges, and employers to create a pipeline of high-quality candidates to fulfill industry demand. State leadership funds under the law can be used in several ways, including to develop and implement programs of study, provide students with integrated course work, offer opportunities for students to earn postsecondary credentials and postsecondary credits through dual or concurrent enrollment at no cost to the student, and participate in paid WBL experiences.

All4Ed, in partnership with several organizations, recently provided states with a set of recommendations on ways to expand partnerships like the one described in this blog through the implementation of the nation’s updated CTE law. You can view those recommendations at   

Myles McMurchy is a student at New York University School of Law and a former research analyst at SRI Education.

Featured photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action