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South Brooklyn Community High School Best Bet Careers Video Project

By David Arons, South Brooklyn Community High School and Dantel Proctor, Jobs for the Future

South Brooklyn Community High School (SBCHS) occupies a small brick building at an intersection in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. It may look like your typical high school – but it is not. South Brooklyn is what is known as a “transfer” school—an alternative public high school— that re-engages students ages 16-21 who have dropped out or fallen behind in credits. It is operated by the New York City Department of Education in partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that runs dozens of programs for youth and families in underserved neighborhoods.  SBCHS gives students an opportunity to earn their high school diploma or High School Equivalency diploma on a flexible schedule, while also providing guidance and resources for postsecondary plans and career readiness.

Many students’ out-of-school lives are challenging and few have role models or people to ask for advice about post-graduation plans. Many know that they will need to work, but do not know how they will find jobs that will provide adequate compenstion to take care of a family and other financial responsibilities. Mapping out a career path — let alone one that they feel passionate about— is rarely  on their radar screens.

In more affluent schools, students begin thinking about postsecondary plans and careers beginning in grade 9. In order to close that gap, as well as build 21st century skills, SBCHS offers students a career and post-secondary exploration class that is co-lead by the school’s job & internship coordinator and a teacher. For many of the students, this will be the first time they have been asked to critically think about their futures and to develop step-by-step action plans to accomplish their postsecondary goals, using web-based platforms and tools.

Summer 2016, SBCHS joined forces with JFF (with the support of the Pinkerton Foundation) to create a novel curriculum for the 2016-2017 career exploration class. The curriculum builds digital media production skills, engages students with local businesses, and provides an opportunity for them to make decisions that will lead to high-demand, high-growth careers.

The curriculum relied heavily on MyBestBets (MBB), a unique web and mobile application developed by JFF and YouthBuild USA. MBB helps low-income young people identify their interests, talents and aspirations, investigate promising careers, and organize and track their progress toward their post-secondary goals. Its name describes its fundamental purpose: to help students find their “best bet”1 postsecondary program that leads to a family sustaining career.

School staff proposed a class that would integrate the use of MyBestBets and the curriculum of a SBCHS digital media production class in which students document their neighborhoods through video. The idea was to connect career pathway exploration to the local economy (careers are not far away, they are around the corner) as well as help students link local businesses to postsecondary education (what skills/credentials does this local business owner have? What has been his or her career trajectory?).

SBCHS, with JFF, worked with a long time collaborator, Dance Theatre Etcetera (DTE), a Red Hook-based nonprofit that uses the arts to effect social transformation, to develop a year-long curriculum based on three 8-week cycles. During the first cycle, students worked through tasks on MyBestBets: assessing their interests, researching the local labor market (what occupations are in-demand?), and learning about postsecondary options for those occupations. During the second cycle, DTE instructors taught the fundamentals of film production, including working with cameras, lighting, audio, and other equipment. This cycle provided a rare glimpse into what film production entails, an entry point into creating digital content —an in-demand skill set—and hands-on fun with cameras and equipment.

During the third cycle, all of the lessons learned previously came together. Students were asked to choose from the selected occupations (from the first cycle) that were interesting to them, and met some of the “best bet” criteria, and to research Red Hook locals who work in that profession. Then they conducted and filmed interviews with these professionals in their workplaces. The skills they honed and the activities they participated in will serve them well in the future: researching the area labor market and assessing the job qualities most important to them, networking with local professionals, honing their interview skills, learning video production, and integrating two seemingly different subjects —film and career exploration—for experiential learning at its best.

Combining MyBestBets career exploration and a course in film production deepened student learning. Furthermore, experiential learning is critical to the students SBCHS serves, providing more engagement with the material than a straight classroom experience could offer. Connecting students to local professionals opened their eyes to the opportunities in their backyard. One student, Jonathan, said the following about the class: “In the beginning, I thought, ‘What are we doing this for?,’ but then I realized how big a network I have—MBB showed me that. Filming was fun and got me out of my little box, communicating and reaching out to people for interviews. I went to places in the neighborhood I didn’t even know exisited and got to meet business owners and see how people started off in their careers. It was inspiring! After this class experience, I now think about the opportunity first, rather than thinking about the pay first.”

A nice windfall from the project: the school now has a valuable trove of videotaped interviews with local professionals discussing the challenges and rewards of their careers.