I recently had the privilege of visiting the Woodville Tomkins Technical and Career High School in Savannah, Georgia, where students in the Culinary Arts program prepared a delicious surf and turf with lobster pilaf served in the shell. Under the guidance of award-winning Chef Dyson-Bosier, high school students planned, prepped, cooked, and served 20 guests who were all grantees of the Hewlett Foundation.

Student ambassadors then proudly showed off their “pathway” classrooms, including a roomful of flight simulators in the Aviation Flight Operations class and a full body shop in the Automotive Technology wing. The school includes its own onsite pre-k where students in the early childhood program get actual real-world student teaching experience as they study early childhood development.

Woodville Tomkins graduates 100 percent of its students (compared to the district graduation rate of 87 percent, and the Georgia statewide average of 81 percent). The school offers dual enrollment courses through partnerships with four Georgia colleges. Students typically complete their core academic course work in grades 9 and 10, and complete at least three courses in their selected career pathway, often earning technical certifications. Many graduate with enough post-secondary credits to enter the college of their choice as sophomores.

What is the secret that makes Woodville Tomkins so successful in graduating students ready for college and career?

In a word: engagement. Students at Woodville Tomkins are visibly engaged in and proud of their studies. The student chefs presented our meal with all the pride of Top Chef. Graduating senior Fautzin Desmonda showed us the sanding and body work that he and his classmates had done on his own car. He will earn his Automotive Service Excellence certification and will apply those skills in the Army, where he will receive further training in a field he loves. Graduating senior Deonte Green proudly shared his latest college acceptance, bringing the total to 10 institutions he would soon have to choose from.

Research shows that students enrolled in career and technical education (CTE) programs of study (POS) that include dual enrollment in high school are more likely to graduate, more likely to enroll in two- or four-year colleges, and more likely to complete their post-secondary program of study. Students who are motivated by the relevance of what they’re studying apply themselves, work harder, and take greater satisfaction in school.

Woodville Tomkins Principal Alfred McGuire has created a remarkable culture of engagement where students think about their course pathways and future careers in terms of the impact each student can make on society. “I believe career pathways allow our students to utilize their talents and skills to make a positive impact for themselves and their community. By gaining these valuable skills they grow to become dynamic members of our society and create lasting outcomes that will benefit everyone.”

As I see it, career is finally stepping out of the shadows in our national commitment to college and career readiness. Career has always been the end goal, and post-secondary education—whether four-year or two-year college or industry certification—has always been the next step toward that important outcome. Bringing career into high school, making course work more relevant and engaging, is a powerful strategy for tapping student motivation and expanding opportunities.

At New Meridian, we hope to advance this effort to make high school more relevant and engaging to motivate students to pursue their dreams. We are working with Dr. David Conley, several career and technical academies, and community colleges to pilot a new measure of career readiness. By combining foundational academic skills, pathway-specific quantitative and literacy skills, and non-academic skills required for success in knowledge-based work environments, we are committing ourselves to help high schools like Woodville Tomkins and career-oriented community colleges around the country engage students in relevant, inspiring programs of study that will lead them to new opportunities in meaningful, high-paying 21st century careers.