Ford Next Generation Learning
8 min readJan 13, 2022


Cheryl Carrier, Executive Director, Ford Next Generation Learning

We have all heard the saying, “It takes a village.” Nowhere is that phrase more applicable than in the case of educating and preparing our young people for success in college, career, and life. If you are an educator, you know just how critical and monumental an undertaking that is. To get the results we are all looking for, it does indeed “take a village.”

However, preparing our youth for success requires more than just any village. It takes a village that is strategically assembled, fully engaged, and willing to be bold, innovative, and committed long term. In this article, we are going to focus on how to build and organize your community into the kind of village needed to prepare our young people for relevant learning, in-demand careers, and community leadership roles.

Consider the Benefits of the Career-Academy Model

So, if we want to engage the community and achieve the results we desire, exactly how do we make that happen? Do we have to design something entirely new or is there already a model we can adapt to local conditions that:

  • Increases the number of young people who achieve success in college, career, lifelong learning, and leadership;
  • Cultivates extraordinary, diverse talent for the region;
  • Increases community prosperity that is shared by all; and
  • Increases educational equity and justice for all?

The answer to that question is, “Yes!” Real-world application and experience over time demonstrates that the career-academy model is capable of addressing all four of these goals. A career academy is defined as a small learning community within existing high schools where students learn their academics through the lens of the community’s prioritized workforce needs. Career academies are academically rigorous, help students develop transferable workplace and life skills, connect students to employers in their field of interest and help them make better decisions about their future.

Career and technical education (CTE) and academic teachers are paired with a counselor and local employers in targeted pathways. The team works together to provide authentic work-based learning (WBL) experiences for students in that particular field of interest. To make that happen effectively and then sustain the model over time, it is easy to see why it takes a village. (See examples of WBL experiences in visual below.)

Making the Transformation a Reality

When one looks at real-world examples of the career-academy model in action, the value and benefits are clear. What may be a bit more difficult to envision, is how to make the actual transformation from where you are now to where you want to go. The journey may look difficult, but that is exactly where the experience and support from Ford Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL) comes into play. The Ford NGL Roadmap and team of experts guides the district and the community as they develop their custom master plan. Following the Ford NGL Roadmap ensures career academies are planned and implemented effectively. It will make sure the academies are aligned with the region’s workforce and economic priorities and that each and every academy student has access to high-wage, high-skill opportunities in their own backyard.

It’s What We Do

Our work at Ford NGL is based on the fundamental idea that you need the larger community to understand the value of career academies and strong CTE pathways. When local employers and the community understand the value to students, their workforce, and their community, they get excited and are willing to become co-owners of that transformation.

Ford NGL has diverse and far-reaching experience in communities across the country and internationally. It includes cities like Akron, Hampton, Nashville, Louisville here in the United States and extends across the Atlantic to locations in Scotland and England. Ford NGL has worked with those communities and guided them through a Five-Phase Roadmap process. In that process, CTE is at the center of the transformation and becomes available to every student. The Roadmap process guides district leadership as they transition their districts from traditional high schools to results-oriented, career-themed academies.

Getting Started

So what should district leadership be doing to engage the community at the beginning of this process?

First, determine “why” you are moving in this direction. Why should the district transform their high schools into career-themed academies? The answer is because through CTE, career academies will engage students. It makes learning relevant. It answers that age-old student question, ”Why do I need to learn this?” However, to truly answer the “why” you also need to understand the workforce and economic development needs of your region. You need to engage with your workforce development intermediary to identify the true current and future workforce needs. Your “why” should show how you can improve student AND workforce needs, address equity in education offerings and lead to community prosperity.

Second, find someone in the community who has the cache and the contacts to open doors to the community for you. This might be your local chamber, workforce development intermediary, an education or workforce non-profit, etc. Get on their calendar and have a discussion with them about their workforce challenges and introduce them to the career- pathway/career-academy model. Avoid “edu-speak.” Instead, share with them how this new approach is going to help them achieve their goals. Describe how they can engage to influence and support this community-connected approach to teaching and learning. Make sure they understand not only the advantages for students but the features and potential benefits to their organization and the community.

Third, once they clearly understand “the why,” ask them to convene a group of community leaders consisting of workforce and economic development intermediaries, chamber heads, local non-profits focused on education, and employers in high-demand pathways. As you speak with them, make it clear that you want to understand and address their needs. As you share your case for career academies, make sure your presentation addresses their concerns. Ask them, “How can we help you in this process?” Showing your interest and offering your support will go a long way to gaining their trust. It will lay the foundation for a working relationship that goes far beyond the old way of just asking for financial support. Instead, it will be about building a true partnership that is a win-win-win for students, educators, and employers.

Fourth, show them a fully functioning community which has transformed their high schools into career-themed academies. Let them spend time with their peers in that community learning from them about how they can also help support this effort. Reach out to Ford NGL at for potential study visit opportunities. When you visit a Ford NGL Community, take a multidisciplinary team consisting of teachers, employers, chamber representatives, workforce intermediaries, and nonprofits. Give team members a list of “look fors” and a set of questions to explore. Make sure the schedule allows time for reflection between different parts of the visit.

Fifth, debrief with the team before the group heads home. Have someone other than yourself facilitate a discussion about what team members saw, what surprised them, what excited them, and what concerned them. As a group, discuss how the career-academy model might work for their community. Make sure the facilitator engages them in discussions about possible next steps. (We have found that having a well-respected community representative take the lead with support and encouragement from a district representative can form the basis for developing a strong working relationship.)

Finally, ask each member of the visiting team what they think their role might be in supporting this transformation. Roles usually fall under the categories of advocate, advise, align, and activate (the 4A’s). For more information about the 4A’s, please see the image below. Make sure team members return from the study visit understanding how they might be involved in the transformation process.

The 4A’s

Within days of returning home, you will need to reconvene the group. You will also want to consider bringing aboard a facilitating organization. Such an organization, like Ford NGL, can help you and your team set up the structures, processes, and systems required to develop your career academies into something that is scalable and sustainable through changing circumstances — changes like superintendent transitions, civic changes, and economic highs and lows.

Understand the “Why” and Embrace the Mission*

When the community understands the “why” — they want a seat at the table. When they actually see what is possible in a transformed community — they embrace the mission. They want to start the process and be part of the partnership. As I always say, community organizations and employers come because they want to develop their talent, but they stay because they see what is possible, they witness the real differences made in students’ lives, and they discover just how much their employees enjoy supporting the next generation.

The needs of today’s youth and the future of our economy and our communities, begs for us to take responsible action. It requires a village to respond in ways that effectively transform our approach to education and delivers the outcomes we all hope for, and that is what the mission* of Ford NGL is all about. We hope this brief overview of our approach to the career-academy model is helpful and has inspired you to join us in our mission to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, today.

The Mission of Ford Next Generation Learning*

At the heart of our approach is a fundamental shift in mindset about what it means to prepare young people for college, careers, and life. All youth, especially those furthest from opportunity, deserve an education that nurtures their talents and full potential, preparing them for whatever future career path they choose. Over the last 20 years, Ford Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL) has prototyped and refined a variety of solutions that leverage the power of community and partnerships to prepare and support each and every student for success.

Ford NGL mobilizes educators, employers, and community leaders to prepare a generation of diverse young people who will graduate from high school ready for college, careers, and life — prepared to apply their passion and skills to improve and contribute to their communities and to succeed in the 21st-century economy.

Students are at the center of everything we do. We help communities prepare the future scientists, inventors, public servants, and entrepreneurs who will apply their passion and expertise to improving the world for both their generation and generations to come.



Ford Next Generation Learning

Workforce and education solutions that advance success for all students especially those furthest from opportunity.