A Model That Works: A School-based 21st Century Skills Program


A School-Based 21st Century Skills Program that Prepares Students for the World of Work.

Amy knew that her work at the national and state level for an education technology nonprofit, while valuable, did not allow her to get close enough to the front lines to prove that what she knew was possible: Engaging partners effectively in the teaching of "soft skills" (now referred to as non-cognitive skills) can expose students to the kind of real-world learning that is at the core of preparing them for success in adulthood.  In 2006, Amy took the position of the Ventures Program Director at Fenway High School, a well-known, forward-thinking school in the Boston Public School system. It was here that she developed a 21st century skills-based curriculum and fostered an award-winning partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, receiving the Partnership of the Year Award at the 2010 Boston Business Journal’s annual Corporate Citizenship Summit.

The Fenway Ventures Program

Fenway High School in Boston, MA is one of 127 public schools in the Boston Public Schools system. The 30-year old school was founded by Dr. Larry Myatt to provide an alternative approach to teaching and learning in the public school system.  It is a small learning community culture and a pedagogy strongly based in relationships. It was indeed the right environment for such a forward-thinking practice in American education.

Amy developed curriculum for the program that taught 11th and 12th grade students how to succeed in the world of work post-high school. Students learned skills for communicating and networking with members of the Boston business and nonprofit community. Through the program, students have multiple opportunities to interact directly with professionals through structured experiential learning curriculum. At Fenway, Amy's students interacted with 200+ community members each year through internships, job shadows, guest speakers, mock interviews and a very popular annual career fair attended by well over 100 professionals. She fostered and strengthened partnerships with many organizations and individuals each year including Children’s Hospital, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston Police Department, Boston City Councilor John Connolly and Governor Deval Patrick’s reelection campaign.

In class, students wrote business plans, interacted with visiting bankers to learn how to make smart financial decisions, and explored potential careers through her workplace readiness curriculum. Year after year students and their families remark just how valuable this real-life preparation has been as they enter college and the workplace.

Proof is in the pudding: Several graduates happily returned each year to guide their younger peers and help Amy manage the annual 11th grade business plan pitch events at Blue Cross Blue Shield's offices.

Why the Program Works and Succeeds

Pedagogy matters.

Teaching 21st century skills curriculum means teaching subtleties, cultures, norms and behaviors.  Because of this, instruction must be approached with keen attention paid to social-emotional triggers that may be present in the content, subtleties in a student's sense of self, and a focus always on building confidence. Below are a few of Amy's methods.

  • Students were held to high expectations and they were given many opportunities through the unique curriculum and pedagogy to create their own rubrics and assessments. Holding students to their own standards is an empowering approach. Their own ideas for success often push them farther than a "one size fits all" approach ever will.
  • Creativity, technology and multi-media were central to the class.  Teaching and practicing new styles of problem solving, future thinking and behavioral styles can be emotionally challenging.  Giving students the freedom to present and articulate their ideas in a medium that allows for creative expression empowers students to take charge, challenge their own assumptions and grow.
  • Students were encouraged to explore what they thought they might like to do for careers.  Job shadows, professional interviews, extensive career research allowed students to expand their horizons and start to check off what they would be good at in life - and easily say no to what they wouldn't.  For an outgoing student who is good at math who believes accounting is the best career choice, a day-long job shadow and reflection report is a very important teaching moment:  Outgoing personality types would fizzle in an isolating career.  Better to learn that first hand while still in high school than a few years later once the major has been declared and precious money spend on credit hours that can't be traded.
  • The involvement of adults from local businesses and organizations played a very important role. Teaching entrepreneurship or any of the other units can be complex and challenging. Adults serve as mentors, judges and coaches. They are the embodied examples of what students are learning. Their example is essential. Their care and concern for students has deep and immeasurable impact.
  • Students need to learn, practice and reflect. What's more, they need to do so in the safe, trusted environment of their school with the guidance and feedback of teachers, mentors and adults they trust.  When students engage in job shadows, internships and major presentations, it is critical that pedagogy include opportunities for processing new experiences and support in challenging situations.

Press for the Ventures Program:


[VIDEO] CNN Newsroom: Teaching kids early about business skills

A program at a Boston school teaches 11th and 12th graders business skills through its Ventures Program.
On-air interview with Ali Velshi / November 5, 2010


Boston Business Journal: BCBS, Junior Ventures partnership still growing

By Linda Goodspeed, Special to the Journal / Monday, September 13, 2010


The Christian Science Monitor: These students have a (business) plan

By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2008

Bottom Line: When students explore careers and build skills through such a program, they are afforded the opportunity to network and build important professional relationships that carry them through college and into career. Those relationships belong to the students. With proper coaching, students will leave high school with the tools and confidence to nurture their network and graduate from college with deep professional connections they can call upon for work and career leads.


IMG_3822Here, two Boston Police Officers who supervised a student's senior internship attend her high school graduation.