Help is on the way for a fortunate group of high school graduates in Boston who, like their peers around the country, are trying to figure out their next step in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis and the surrounding confusion about which colleges will open in the fall and how courses will be taught.
Digital Ready, a program offering Boston public high school students opportunities to learn and work, free of charge, in high-tech industries, has partnered with the Wentworth Institute of Technology and the Barr Foundation along with several local businesses to launch a project known as Year 13.
As the name suggests, Year 13 is a “bridge year” between high school and college during which students will take college courses, have work-based learning experiences and earn 18 college credits, all designed to “ignite students’ passions, equip them with the skills necessary to navigate a complex, technology-driven world and ultimately connect them to high-wage jobs in Boston’s innovation economy,” according to the program’s overview.
A main feature of Year 13 is that it takes students into workspaces outside of traditional learning centers. “Boston is a resource-rich city so we allow learning beyond the four walls of a classroom, looking at the city of Boston as a lab for learning — rather than having all of our classes in a classroom,” Digital Ready founder and executive director Dr. Sarah Cherry Rice told Diverse.
“So many doors are shut to students after high school, especially with COVID, so our goal is to see how we can open as many doors as possible for students to pursue their purpose,” said Rice, who came up with the idea while working on a doctorate in educational leadership Ed.L.D. at Harvard University.
“We’re specifically looking to build pipeline for Black and Latinx students because we know that even before COVID, communities of color didn’t have access to these college opportunities.” The program also gives priority to students from schools designated as underperforming by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
One of the program’s main supporters, Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty, said he had advocated for several years “that a Year 13 could be the missing link for our students.” He added that as the city is undergoing historic change and economic growth, “We need to be intentional in creating programs that ensure all of our residents share in this growth.”
As part of the project, currently beginning its first cohort of between 25 and 40 participants on a rolling admission basis, students will work as a team in a digital design studio on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics. They also will receive additional services including mentoring, academic support in English, math and writing, and “opportunities to explore and pursue their purpose.”
As the academic component of the partnership, Wentworth’s president Dr. Mark Thompson said, “Our partnership with Digital Ready provides students with early college experience and immersions into STEM fields while exploring possible future career tracks and getting a head-start to become the next generation of innovators and leaders of Boston.”
Over the years, the concept of bridge-year educational programs has grown. In 2015 a U.S. News and World Report article declared “13th Grade Offers Some Teens an Easier Transition to College” and pointed out that “some teens are staying in high school for an extra year for 13th grade to earn associate degrees or substantial college credits for free or at a reduced cost.”
Also gaining popularity in recent years, an increasing number of high school grads have opted for a gap year to travel, volunteer or participate in internships using resources such as the Gap Year Association. However, many students’ financial status, compounded by the recent restrictions of COVID-19, have limited their access to those opportunities.
The idea of Year 13 gained momentum in Boston last year after The Boston Globe published the Pulitzer Prize finalist Valedictorians Project, which located 93 of the 113 valedictorians from 2005 to 2007. The articles revealed that many had struggled in college and professionally after graduating from Boston high schools as “the best and the brightest.”
“Our goal is to get students on pathways to economic mobility, to those high-wage jobs,” said Rice. “We really want this experience to have currency, so that they will be able to put this on their resume and have every industry partner raise their hand and say, ‘Yes, please! How soon can you come and work for me?’”