Can a school network improve the economic well-being of an entire community? That’s what Lighthouse Community Public Schools (LCPS), a K-12 charter network in East Oakland, Calif., is betting on with the launch of a new business academy designed to develop the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. But LCPS knows they can’t do it alone, so they’re working with a host of partners, including local community colleges, city leaders, and nonprofit and corporate allies.

LCPS has been serving East Oakland for twenty years, but inequities exposed by COVID-19 and growing concerns about economic opportunity in the Bay Area heightened the need to empower students to become generational wealth builders.

“We really need to think about our high school and K-12 systems as addressing economic justice and income inequity,” says Rich Harrison, CEO of LCPS. “We’re uniquely positioned to connect our kids sooner to some of the businesses and work infrastructure around us so that they’re able to get very clear about pathways to a family-sustaining career.”

Adding to the sense of urgency, recent data showed that only about 40% of its graduates completed a college degree within six years. Lighthouse leaders knew that, with some college credit under their belt, students would be more likely to persist through and graduate from college. They also hypothesized that business coursework and early exposure to the professional working world would enable students to access better-paying, career-oriented part-time jobs while in college.

As part of the new business academy, participating 10th, 11th, and 12th-grade students take dual credit business courses and participate in internships and other work-based experiences. The courses, which will include accounting, management, entrepreneurship, and others, are taught at the high school by community college instructors, with credits fully transferable to the California state university system. Work-based learning opportunities include career panels, business competitions, job shadowing, and paid internships. So far, about 100 students have participated in the academy and dual credit classes.

This fall, LCPS worked with SuitUp, a national nonprofit that coordinates student exposure to career possibilities in the corporate world. SuitUp leveraged partnerships with Amazon Web Services and Airbnb to host students in their corporate offices for product development competitions. Student teams worked with employees to brainstorm and pitch real-life proposals, giving them an opportunity to envision themselves in different careers and challenging stereotypes about their potential for success.

During internships at Bay Area businesses in fields such as marketing, accounting, and engineering, students develop a resume of marketable skills while exploring their interests. Sheree West, Lighthouse’s work-based learning coordinator, says, “I want to help students connect the dots, so they know what they want to pursue and how to get there.”

Realizing this vision required effective partnerships and significant funding streams. Harrison, LCPS’s CEO, identifies two keys to building collaborative relationships: a clear vision and plan; and the awareness and discipline to reach out, meet, and follow up with potential partners. A local city council member’s support, for example, was invaluable in identifying additional key players and lending credibility to the initiative.

A clear vision was also crucial for LCPS to align local, state, and federal funding around a single powerful idea, rather than dispersing funds among multiple siloed initiatives. Aware that the influx of COVID-related resources was temporary, LCPS prioritized a multi-year investment plan to increase college- and career-ready graduates, enhance integrated student supports and family/community engagement, and offer the community entry-level positions with a pathway to teacher certification.

These structural and staffing investments have been key in realizing Lighthouse’s business academy vision, now in Year 1, led by Josh Weintraub, LCPS’s college and career readiness coordinator. Throughout the program, LCPS centers student experience: coursework using the Expeditionary Learning (EL) framework helps develop students’ awareness of justice issues that affect their lives, while positive job experiences broaden their vision of what their lives could become and create a sense of belonging in a world of expanding opportunities.

Arizona State University
Mission & Vision

The mission of Lighthouse Community Public Schools is to prepare a diverse K-12 student population for college and a career of their choice.

Lighthouse Community Public Schools believe that all young people have the potential to become lifelong changemakers who realize their unique vision—rooted in their identity, knowledge, and skills—to create equity in their own lives and in the community, leading to a healthier, more joyful world. They are an innovative model for public education that puts each child at the center of their own learning. The Lighthouse community is equal parts love and rigor where children discover their unique light within.

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